The future of medical technology devices in the time of COVID-19

In this COVID-19 era, the need for health and care systems to become agile and change is very real.
By Charles Alessi
01:34 am
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Credit: Stephen Dawson

As COVID-19 sweeps around the world, we are starting to see countries exit from lockdown, others introducing more stringent lockdown and others relying on the resilience of their health and care systems to allow them to make changes which are more discreet and focused on trying to avoid the economic and political effects of more stringent approaches. 

The explosion of data points

Health and care systems are having to adopt to this new world and suddenly, the old ways of working which relied largely on an analogue world and the bricks and mortar of the 'office visit' are starting to look more outdated and out of step with the environment they are working within.

There is an interesting parallel here. Human Coronavirus are a group of viruses that change small parts of their genetic code as part of their life cycle. Thus, they mutate as a matter of course. The challenge is for our health and care systems to also be able to “mutate” at pace and scale. We have never seen this happening before but happening it is, with digital transformation, the use of medical technological devices, the application of AI in the care of people becoming more commonplace.

This is also being accompanied by other significant changes, particularly around the deployment of a whole gamut of new devices and products including wearables which together with the dissemination of a 5G infrastructure and the very sudden increase in take up, are leading to a veritable explosion in the number of data points which are going to become available to different health and care systems globally. 

It is now accepted that these changes are here to stay. Not only is COVID-19 a pandemic which is unlikely to vanish with the summer sun in the northern hemisphere, but there is a real urgency to develop the insights we need to deploy AI and improve and personalise the care of people who will be affected on the second wave of contagion which is likely to creep up on us in the autumn above the equator. This means that the reliance on medical technological solutions will increase and increase at a pace and scale we have not witnessed before. This has many potential entry points in the best management of COVID-19 pandemics. From the monitoring of mild cases at home, to the personalised care of patients post discharge from hospitals, at both ends of the COVID-19 journey. To this can be added the better management of contact tracing, and more systematic and technologically enabled monitoring of workforce which is already a scarce resource.   

There is also another and often forgotten, dimension. The monitoring of existing non-communicable diseases, largely displaced as the central activity of health systems who are totally focused on managing the pandemic, will require new solutions and the potential here for technology and digital solutions to enable better self-care is considerable.

It is therefore really unlikely that this is a temporary phase. The post COVID-19 world in the 2020s is going to be very different to what came before it.

Deploying technology at scale

So, what are some attributes which will make some devices stand out?

Obviously, they need to fulfil a tangible need and be “good enough” in terms of accuracy, reliability, safety and reproducibility to be deployed at scale. This is largely self-evident but there are five other aspects of how they are deployed which may appear to be less obvious but in fact are equally important.

  1. They need to fit within a governance structure so there is clarity around who is responsible for monitoring and action when required. This has in the past been all too often an afterthought. It is all too easy to get enticed by exciting technological advances and deploy them, because it is possible without spending the requisite time ensuring they fit within a clinical workflow and that the workforce implications around their deployment is managed with the same rigour as any other aspect.
     
  2. They need to be built into existing clinical pathways and flows – the technologies that succeed will be the ones that assist clinical decision support and preferably are “baked into” EMRs.
     
  3. They need to be personalised. Ideally, they need to incorporate existing data to provide data which is relevant to the individual and also relevant to the consultation. The age of metadvice is upon us now in this era of precision health and precision medicine.
     
  4. They need to have interoperability built into them via open APIs. Unless one can easily and effortlessly integrate them within an EMR, it is unlikely they can form part of the system into which AI can work its magic and develop the insights we are desperate for to better manage subsequent waves.
     
  5. They must be secure. Cybersecurity takes on an even greater importance and prominence in the age of pandemics.   

Thus, the future for med tech is rosy. First movers and fast followers will reap the benefits of easier adoption and incorporation into the mainstream as long as they are true to these principles.