Ireland – with its concentration of ICT giants, pharmaceutical and medical device makers – is strategically placed to become a world leader in digital healthcare technologies, a conference in Dublin heard today.
The ActivAge conference was organised jointly by the Digital Hub Development Authority (DHDA) and St. James’s Hospital Dublin, and brought together more than 100 leaders from the medical, enterprise, tech, research and community sectors, from both Ireland and further afield.
“A number of factors are converging in Ireland right now, which make it the perfect place to develop world-class digital health solutions,” explained Edel Flynn, CEO of the Digital Hub Development Agency.
“We have a historically strong base in pharmaceuticals and med tech. Nine of the top 10 pharmaceutical companies and eight of the top 10 med-tech companies are located here, and we have a proven track record in the development of products such as medicines, ventilators, contact lenses and injectable devices.”
The e-health opportunity
Now, said Flynn, the major growth area in health globally is the development of digital products and services; the whole area of e-health.
“Alongside our historical base with leading pharmaceutical and med-tech companies, we have a vibrant start-up community and a thriving ICT sector in Ireland, so we’re perfectly placed to develop world-class digital health solutions.
“At the same time, demographic factors should prove conducive to promoting e-health as a leading sector within our economy. We have a young, mobile and extremely well-educated workforce. But we also have a rapidly ageing population, and a health service that is experiencing more and more pressure as our population continues to age.”
Flynn said a focus on promoting e-health as a key growth sector within the Irish economy presents a ‘win-win’ scenario for all.
“For government and healthcare professionals, it offers an opportunity to provide smarter, safer and patient-centred healthcare in a more efficient and cost-effective way. It gives entrepreneurs and investors an opportunity to develop products and services with real commercial value – with the potential to be replicated in health services across the globe. And for the general population, it obviously results in better healthcare experiences and cost savings,” Flynn said.
Irish tech companies that presented health-related products and services at the conference included Dublin-based Lincor Solutions, UK-based Patients Know Best and Biobeats, a biotech start-up with offices in the US, UK and Italy.
Prof Rose Anne Kenny, director of Mercer’s Institute for Successful Ageing at St. James’s Hospital and principal investigator with TILDA (The Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing), highlighted the consequences of Ireland’s ageing population for the healthcare system, and the role technology can play in meeting the associated challenges.
“Life expectancy is increasing year-on-year because of better healthcare, better awareness of health issues, better environments and less stress,” she said. “We are gaining approximately five hours of life expectancy with every day that passes. A baby born in Dublin today can, on average, expect to live three months longer than a baby born on the same day last year.
“Coupled with falling fertility rates, this remarkable progress is causing populations across the developed world to shift to a much older profile, and Ireland is no exception. By 2050, we can expect that there will be only two people of working age to every person of retired age. This emerging demographic has the potential to place great strain on the health services. We need to be thinking now about how to design and deliver the services we will need to support an older population.”
Kenny said that delivering a future of successful ageing requires a multidisciplinary effort.
“Technology holds great promise: one recent study in the UK showed a reduction in emergency admissions of 20pc and elective admissions of 14pc, as a result of the use of telehealth technologies. However, it’s not just about finding a technology that ‘works’ – it’s also about finding approaches that contribute positively to quality of life and that are widely accepted and adopted.”
Kenny said that construction of Mercer’s Institute for Successful Ageing will begin shortly at St. James’s Hospital. Supported with a €16.8m donation from Atlantic Philanthropies, the institute will integrate all clinical and research services for older people at St. James’s in a single-purpose facility.
“At the moment, health services in Ireland are very fragmented,” she said.
“Part of MISA’s mission is to align activities so that resources can be used in a more consistent and cohesive way. New models of care will be evaluated at St. James’s for rollout nationally. The focus will be on making the patient’s encounter as easy as possible, providing all assessment and evaluation in a one-stop visit.”
Heart monitor image via Shutterstock