5 disruptive technologies we can embrace in healthcare

10 Jan 2018

Image: Chinshoen/Shutterstock

PwC’s Dennis Brown says consumers around the world are ready to embrace AI and robotics for their healthcare needs.

Globally, PwC research reveals that the majority (55pc) of consumers are willing to replace human doctors with artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics. Accessibility and accuracy are seen as benefits, while trust and the human element are key challenges.

The research confirms that, around the world, healthcare is changing and the public is ready to embrace AI and robotics for their healthcare needs. The majority of consumers are willing to receive care from these advanced technologies, which have the potential to transform healthcare delivery to make it better, faster and more accessible for all.

‘Technological innovations brought about by robotics, VR, automation, AI, 3D printing and drones are all worth investigating, having the potential to disrupt the health industry and ultimately improve it’

Such emerging technologies currently being used in the health sector in other countries can also play a huge role in transforming the Irish health system. Technological innovations brought about by robotics, virtual reality (VR), automation, AI, 3D printing and drones are all worth investigating, having the potential to disrupt the health industry and ultimately improve it.

While health systems in other parts of the world might be using some of these technologies, Ireland also needs to consider exploiting these technologies to make step changes in how healthcare is delivered to patients, including faster diagnosis, greater precision in surgery and improved administration of drugs.

1. Robotics

In Eindhoven, the Netherlands, for example, Prof Marc de Smet has, for close to 10 years, been developing the Preceyes microrobot in surgery, which is going to revolutionise eye operations where a high degree of precision is required. Microrobots will soon transform retinal surgery and the way eye conditions caused by genetic defects are treated.

‘Last year, we had a major breakthrough when we used robot-assisted surgery for the first time on the human eye’

According to Prof de Smet, who was in Dublin recently: “Eye surgery demands a high level of skill and we have pretty much reached a limit as to what we can currently do unassisted.  However, last year, we had a major breakthrough when we used robot-assisted surgery for the first time on the human eye.”

We also know that a private hospital in Ireland operates CyberKnife treatment, a robotic treatment solution that delivers treatment for types of cancer and neurological conditions that were previously considered untreatable.

2. Virtual reality

In Sweden, pharmacy chain Apotek Hjärtat provides its customers with a VR experience that can help alleviate pain and discomfort – for example, during a vaccination. Through a VR experience, the customer is taken to a serene lakeside paradise where they can interact with the surroundings.

By simply looking at different VR objects, they can trigger music they like, light a fire or even beckon a sea monster! In doing so, they forget about the pain, making the medical procedure and/or recuperation more bearable.

3. Automation

In the US, research is ongoing to create a handheld device that could diagnose up to 13 health conditions and capture the key vital signs of a patient. Such consumer-operated Star Trek-style tricorders will perform work currently handled by primary care workers. These devices will be engineered to integrate existing health technologies automatically in the home and combine various data points to generate the relevant information for patients and physicians alike. Doctors will be able to make a diagnosis or decide on a course of treatment without physically seeing the patient.

4. 3D printing

3D printing is a technology used in other countries for many years. In Ireland, we’re seeing some orthodontists using 3D printing – for example, scanning a patient’s teeth to produce dental impressions for crowns, where restoration can be produced with a perfect fit.

Our research highlights that 3D printing is also being used to produce customised hearing aids and even epilepsy medication.

5. Drones

In Rwanda, we have an example of the world’s only drone medical delivery service on a national scale. Urgent medical supplies and blood products are delivered to patients when they need it, regardless of where they live. This service, which started in October 2016, is saving lives and having an impact on healthcare by reducing the time taken to deliver urgent medical supplies.

In Ireland, this technology is very much still in development, and cost and regulation will have to be considered. It is, nevertheless, an indication of what is possible with enormous potential benefits.

Opportunities in emerging technologies

In summary, these technologies are beginning to revolutionise the health system and healthcare supply chains. For example, pharmaceutical companies can address issues such as increasing regulatory complexity, complex supply chains, tightening competition, rising demand for personalised treatments and the persistence of counterfeits much more quickly.

By applying emerging technologies such as those mentioned above, physicians, hospitals, pharmaceutical companies and other healthcare stakeholders can significantly boost their decision-making process to provide a better service to the patient, who is fully involved in the process.

Whether we like it or not, emerging technologies, including AI and robotics, are the future of healthcare. Access to quality, affordable healthcare, and good health for everyone, are the ultimate goals. The economic and social advantages to be gained from integrating these technologies seamlessly into our existing healthcare systems, and then creating new models of healthcare based on these technologies, are enormous.

In Ireland, there is a great opportunity to exploit such emerging technologies to deliver real improvement in healthcare. Whether it’s using microrobots for complex eye surgery, 3D printing for customised hearing aids, or drones to deliver medication and medical supplies to rural parts of the country, it will need thorough planning, skills and resources to deliver.

By Dennis Brown

Dennis Brown is director of PwC’s healthcare technology practice.