Healthcare, like many other sectors, is undergoing a digital transformation – one that goes far beyond earlier frontiers in tech implementation of administration and management. Today, digital trends in healthcare encompass everything from diagnosis and treatment to doctor-patient interaction and convenience. This radical change is enabled by cutting-edge technologies, as well as some surprising applications of older technologies. The top digital trends in healthcare for 2020 are likely to reflect this adaptation of existing technologies in new ways, using them to meet the increasing demands for healthcare in ever more efficient and affordable ways.
One of the biggest digital trends in healthcare for 2020 is a change in the way that patients and healthcare providers communicate. An example of this change comes from the United Kingdom’s National Health Service (NHS), which has undertaken a wide-ranging project to change how outpatient care is provided. These changes, which began with online health records and appointment setting, has expanded to include online patient-clinical staff communication; patient treatment portals which enable patients to access their medical records, make appointments and make other changes; and virtual outpatient care, including routine video consultations and virtual pre-operative consultations. While none of these changes is built on new technology as such, the use of digital tools and technologies to enhance and streamline patient-provider communication is a revolutionary new application that is likely to grow through 2020. Many of the new technologies emerging in healthcare relate specifically to changing how patients communicate with their care providers and receive care.
Another major trend in 2020 and moving forward is the application of artificial intelligence (AI) and data analytics to improve accessibility, affordability, and effectiveness of healthcare. According to Accenture, “AI in healthcare represents a collection of multiple technologies enabling machines to sense, comprehend, act and learn so that they can perform administrative and clinical healthcare functions.” Their estimates suggest that the AI healthcare market, which was worth about $600 million in 2014, will reach $6.6 billion in 2021, for a 40% CAGR.
Applications like robot-assisted surgery, virtual nursing assistants, dosage error reduction, connected machines, preliminary diagnosis and automated image diagnosis can lead to a direct increase in the efficiency and effectiveness of patient care. At the same time, administrative workflow, fraud detection, and cybersecurity AI applications will improve the overall efficiency of healthcare, cutting costs and enabling healthcare providers to increase accessibility. Even though startup and development costs for healthcare AI are not small, the technology is expected to pay for itself both in cost savings and in improved patient care and quality of life. However, it should be noted that AI technologies are not expected to replace human healthcare providers. Instead, AI and robotics will be used to undertake lower-level and monitoring tasks currently done by people, allowing medical systems to use its human resources much more effectively.
Along with AI comes business intelligence (BI), another application of data analytics. Like a lot of technologies, data analytics and BI were developed for industrial use, but have found increasingly widespread application in the healthcare sector. BI is a specific application of data analytics designed to extract information that has high strategic and operational value from raw data. With health information systems producing a veritable flood of raw data, BI is particularly relevant right now. Some of the benefits that BI can offer include improved patient care, better treatment decisions, optimization of resources like equipment and specialist care, and significantly improved cost management. Unlike AI, BI is based on fundamentally human decision making, which means that there is an opportunity to maximize resource allocation and other outcomes based on the organization’s own priorities.
Robotic process automation (RPA) is another growing trend in the healthcare industry. With RPA, the administrative load of healthcare is substantially reduced, as medical claims, treatment plans and other administrative activities can be performed automatically. This cuts staffing costs and increases accuracy of claims handling and other activities, resulting in greatly reduced administration cost overheads. Increasing adoption of RPA in 2020 will help everyone from healthcare providers to insurance providers to state medical services improve their administrative efficiency.
Increasingly, process automation technology developed in industry is also being applied to patient treatment and care. One startling example is that of robotic surgery, a high-precision and minimally invasive surgical approach that uses automation to conduct exacting procedures. Robotic surgery, along with older techniques like laparoscopy, is already changing the healthcare field because these minimally invasive procedures often do not require inpatient procedures or general anesthesia. This both improves procedure safety and reduces the cost and resource utilization of providing the procedures, resulting in significantly more efficient and effective care.
Other direct applications of information technologies in care include Internet of Medical Things (IoMT), which links medical machines and individual devices with data analytics tools for monitoring and patient treatment. IoMT is being trialed in various countries, including the United Kingdom and India, as a way to provide always-on, real-time monitoring of individual conditions for patients and enable immediate response to changes in their health.
At the cutting edge of trends for 2020 is the development of what two implementers – Deloitte and McLaren – are calling digital reality (or DR). DR, a sophisticated algorithmic modeling and simulation approach, is being developed for several industries, including healthcare. The DR approach employs existing AI and artificial reality (AR)/virtual reality (VR) technologies to improve performance in different areas. As Deloitte notes, “A health care application could include creating a digital copy of a hospital process such as patient flow, then applying advanced analytics and running millions of potential scenarios to identify root cause and test different interventions before applying them.” A full application of DR is still in the future, but VR technologies are already being deployed in areas like healthcare provider training.
Some of the VR applications already available for doctors and nurses include: surgery training apps like Surgical Theatre and Fundamental Surgery, which mimic the operating room environment to enable surgeons and nurses to practice and rehearse surgeries; AR apps which can be used to train doctors on cadaver dissection and other tools; and ‘experience’ apps like emergency department simulations and experience simulations, which enable healthcare providers to prepare for the full experience of healthcare.
These apps are ready for use now in training environments. While it is increasingly likely that more recently trained healthcare providers have already used them, that doesn’t mean they don’t have value for more experienced providers. The development of AR/VR and the more advanced DR will continue over 2020 and will likely become a major trend in the next five to ten years.
While new trends like AI, BI, RPA and robotic surgery, and AR/VR and DR are exciting and even revolutionary, the fact is that many healthcare organizations will be as resource-strapped in 2020 as they were in 2019, and will be looking for ways to extend the usefulness of their existing technologies and systems through software development and legacy modernization. Sometimes there is no real need to implement new systems to do existing patient and administrative tasks, especially if the existing system works pretty well already.
Instead, organizations can take on what they call “core modernization,” updating core administrative and patient care systems for use on new platforms and to meet new standards for privacy and security. In 2019, analysis from Gartner Research showed that while major healthcare organizations have begun legacy modernization, this process is still far from complete, with many organizations slowly and cautiously undertaking modernization of complex systems. Thus, it is not expected that this legacy modernization process will be complete any time soon. Instead, 2020 is likely to be a year of forward progress on this ongoing – but extremely important – project for healthcare providers and other organizations.
Healthcare technology will encompass far more than just communication and record keeping. The upcoming year is going to be revolutionary in terms of new technologies and applications of existing technologies to patient care, in addition to administrative efficiency. AI and data analytics, BI and process automation all have the potential to completely change how patient care is provided, making healthcare more accessible, affordable, efficient and effective for everyone.
This revolution will be built not only through the development of new technologies, but through the flexible adoption and adaptation of existing technologies that have emerged in scientific and industry sectors for the special needs of the healthcare industry. At the same time, there are also opportunities to be had in traditional software development and modernization of legacy systems, which will bring smaller and more resource-constrained healthcare systems up-to-date in 2020. What better time to completely revolutionize healthcare than the start of a new decade?