Early diagnoses, virtual consultations and more accurate clinical trials: technology is revitalising the health sector
The world of medicine is experiencing an unprecedented transformation. The pandemic has highlighted the importance of digitisation and a number of different technologies are making an impression on this field, with solutions to improve both diagnosis and treatment. On the occasion of World Health Day, we're taking a close look at this wave of entrepreneurship to find out which trends and advances are leading the way in this sector.
What could be so important that a telecommunications engineer would completely change their course in life? "After many conferences and publications, I began to wonder whether this was what I wanted to continue to do in the future. So I decided to change track and start working in the health sector to design a useful product for hospitals that would improve the day-to-day lives of patients", says Ángel Alberich-Bayarri co-founder of Quibim, a company that operates worldwide in the area of medical imaging and virtual biopsies.
Health is something that affects us all. It is everything. That's why entrepreneurial activity in this arena is so powerful, and the technology applied to it means that it is in the midst of a transformation. Stories like that of Alberich-Bayarri are increasingly common, and the Coronavirus pandemic has acted as the definitive trigger for boosting the sector. In 2020 alone, Spain increased its expenditure on new technologies in healthcare to €783 million - an 11% rise on the previous year according to the latest Index drawn up by the Spanish Society of Healthcare Computer Technology (SEIS).
In this context, the sector is becoming known as 'healthtech', one of the technology trends for 2022. These companies combine innovation and technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and big data to develop new solutions for hospitals and other healthcare settings, which are aimed at improving people's lives.
"If we can optimise the population profiles to be used in research prior to clinical trials, there will be cost savings"
This transformation has also involved a range of profiles from healthcare professionals to engineers, IT specialists, mathematicians and even legal experts. These diverse multidisciplinary teams come together to work on innovative projects, shining new light on the importance of entrepreneurship and promoting ideas in an area that is key to the development and evolution of society.
Healthcare innovation is also attracting ever more interest from investors. According to CB Insights, globally there are 73 unicorns in the sector (tech firms valued at more than $1 billion before going public). On World Health Day, BBVA Open Innovation provides some insights into the impact of technology on the health sector, as well as the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead.
AI and big data, a successful pairing
Sustainability and the efficient use of available resources are two aspects that technology can enhance in the field of health. The co-founder of Quibim argues that using data analysis and AI can transform clinical trials, for example. "Our goal is to do fewer experiments on animals and humans. If we can optimise the population to be used in research prior to clinical trials, there will be cost savings", he notes.
AI is also the key technology behind AcceXible, a platform for detecting and tracking conditions related to cognitive impairment. In 2018, Carla Zaldua, who has a Master's degree in Information Systems from the London School of Economics, launched the project after reading about the results of a study that analysed mild cognitive impairment and dementia through speech. That was when she decided to leverage the benefits of artificial intelligence to help patients, devising a more precise model for identifying these diseases and shortening the time it takes to diagnose them.
"Technology is helping us to make progress in communications between people and monitoring health indicators"
Similarly, the startup HumanITCare uses artificial intelligence and data analysis to allow medical specialists to monitor and forecast anomalies in the health of those suffering from chronic diseases. The company won the 4YFN Awards 2022 at the Mobile World Congress with this innovation.
Screens bring patients and professionals closer
Cases like those of Zaldua and Alberich-Bayarri are proof that entrepreneurship in the health sector doesn't necessarily require specific medical training. Nevertheless, there are also examples of healthcare professionals who have decided to become entrepreneurs.
One such individual is Karen Salirrosas, a specialist endocrinology doctor at the Ricardo Palma University in Peru and founder of Smart Doctor. The company serves as a bridge between healthcare professionals and patients, with a telemedicine service that removes physical and geographical barriers to making and receiving diagnoses. "Technology is helping us to get closer to people, both in terms of communication and when it comes to monitoring their health indicators, with the help of connected devices", says Salirrosas.
As a result of the pandemic, which has fostered a rise in digital consultations, telemedicine platforms are booming, as the people behind AcceXible and Smart Doctor can confirm. Salirrosas explains that "remote consultations allow people in rural settings to access specialists, who are often only based in big cities".
Data to save lives
The availability of data will become increasingly relevant in order to feed algorithms, but the need to safeguard sensitive information about patients must be taken into account. With that in mind, Spain's Recovery, Transformation and Resilience Plan, presented within the framework of the European Next Generation funds, considers the creation of a medical 'data lake'. This data repository would bring together information for mass analysis to assist with identifying conditions and improving diagnoses and treatments.
Incorporating the data into shared systems and processing them will be paramount. "We're going to have a unique moment in which there will be a large health data repository, with interoperable cloud-based systems", states Quibim's Ángel Alberich-Bayarri. In this expert's opinion, sharing data may help advance medicine. “Sharing anonymous medical evidence in online software and giving professionals access to that will allow doctors and researchers around the world to make great progress”, he says.
In this manner, perhaps leading countries in organ donation, such as Spain, can reinvent themselves to become leaders in data donation. With the opening up of information, collaboration between experts from mathematicians to computer scientists and doctors, and momentum from technology, the health sector can already envisage a better future for all patients.