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5 Digital Technologies That Are Transforming Healthcare

Tony Scherba
November 17, 2017

Ten years ago, diabetes meant daily misery. Just for a moment, imagine what it was like.

Your body can't regulate its own blood sugar, so you have to inject yourself with insulin several times a day. To know how much you need, you have to prick your finger and squeeze blood onto a glucose testing strip. You have to do this first thing in the morning, before bed, before every meal, and before getting behind the wheel. If you give yourself too much or too little insulin, which is easy to do, you'll feel sick. If you wait too long between tests, which is also easy to do, you'll also feel sick. If you routinely wait too long, you'll develop a host of awful complications from the disease.

Fortunately, in 2015, the FDA approved the first continuous glucose meter that shares blood sugar readings with your smartphone every five minutes. This digital healthcare technology alerts you when you need insulin, and it doesn't require any finger-pricking dosage confirmations. It's not only more convenient but also more effective. For diabetics, it's life-changing.

Digital Technologies Transforming Healthcare

In business, we talk metaphorically about addressing customers' pain points. In the world of medical devices, it's often literal. Just as it did for diabetes, digital technology continues to disrupt medicine, offering better, quicker, and more convenient care.

In the latest annual report from the PwC Health Research Institute, the global auditing and consulting firm examined a range of technologies that are paving the way to better healthcare. As a digital technology expert, I'll highlight five I find particularly promising:

1. Artificial Intelligence

Twenty years ago, the idea that supercomputers could detect cancer as well as human doctors seemed preposterous. IBM's Deep Blue was impressive, but chess is still just a game. Today, IBM's Watson can suggest cancer treatment options missed even by trained oncologists.

And that's just the start. AI and machine learning may well be the penicillin of the 21st century. Some of the recent projects we've encountered, for example, are building medical companion apps to help patients get answers to their healthcare questions. Tomorrow, specialized medical advice may be just a tap away.

For clinical teams, too, AI's ability to digest data and discover patterns will make it an indispensable diagnostic tool. Indeed, GE Healthcare announced in May a new initiative "to integrate artificial intelligence into every aspect of the patient journey."

2. Augmented Reality

If decades of fitness marketing have taught us anything, it’s that we’re much more willing to pay for sports drinks and activewear than we are to actually do the work to get fit. Then along came a free app for catching mythical monsters in your neighborhood park.

If your goal was to design a product that caused people to exercise, you could hardly do better than last summer’s smash hit: Pokémon GO. Gamification is one of the few tools we've discovered to motivate people to get fit. In fact, certain Yeti employees have been known to come to work sore after a weekend spent chasing Pokémon.

As humans, we struggle to make good choices that have long-term health benefits because skipping them carries no immediate consequences. Exercise is one example. Proper adherence to treatment regimens is another: Half of us don't take medications as prescribed.

One reason AR is such a powerful gamification tool is because it enhances the mundane. If digital technologies like AR can motivate gamers to walk around the block, just think about what they can do for people who want to change their health habits.

AR isn't just for patients, either. A Canadian doctor was the first to perform sinus surgery using an AR display of the patient's nasal passages to guide his incisions. Given its surgical safety and speed advantages, he won't be the last. One day, doctor-guided remote surgeries could save lives throughout third-world countries and remote areas.

3. Internet of Things

You've had a tough time getting out of bed this week, but you can't put your finger on why. After a few days, your smartwatch buzzes. It's not just in your head — the data is pointing to something out of the ordinary, too. You might have an adrenal gland or kidney dysfunction, it warns, asking whether you'd like to automatically schedule an appointment with your doctor.

Such technology isn't yet available to consumers, but by 2020, it may be. If you wear a smart device, count the number of health metrics being monitored on your body right now. Your steps, heart rate, and calorie burn are almost certainly three of them. Possibly, as discussed above, your blood glucose levels. All you need to add to that list to make the above scenario possible is a smart device that can monitor your gait, which is an early indicator of many health problems.

Given the national push toward preventative medicine, you can bet these kinds of early-detection technologies will play major roles in tomorrow's healthcare. Other promising preventative technologies include a smart pillow being built by a team I recently met and a connected toilet that analyzes urine for vitamin and mineral deficiencies.

4. Virtual Reality

If you want to see how VR is reshaping medicine, travel to Lincoln, Nebraska. There, at the University of Nebraska, you’ll find a $119 million center dedicated to training doctors in the use of virtual and augmented reality in medicine.

But the technology isn’t only for doctors. Patients, too, will benefit. VR will help them relax during surgery and throughout their hospital stay. It's also a promising technology for physical therapy, where it'll help patients overcome barriers in lifting their arms or moving their hands and fingers. The data generated will then be passed on to doctors to inform them of their patients' progress.

5. 3D Printing

When 3D printing debuted, it wasn't billed as a healthcare technology. Manufacturing, yes. A hobbyist's toy, absolutely. Yet today's researchers are pursuing 3D-printed materials to aid in reconstructive bone surgery, organ transplantation, and even blood vessel repair.

Already, 3D printing is a wellspring of healthcare innovation, and the market is only growing. Spending on healthcare-related 3D printing is predicted to grow by 18 percent per year through 2020, according to a report by IndustryARC.

It's an exciting time to be a healthcare innovator. Technology is revolutionizing surgery, printing entirely new organs, and helping us live healthier lives.

So if your company is working on cutting-edge medical technologies — or even if you're just curious — check out our whitepaper on prototyping digital healthcare solutions. We've helped multiple healthcare companies construct promising product concepts, and the biggest opportunities in digital healthcare are still to come.

Tony Scherba is a CEO + Founding Partner at Yeti. Tony has been developing software since high school and has worked on digital products for global brands such as Google, MIT, Qualcomm, Hershey’s, Britney Spears and Harmon/Kardon. Tony’s writing about innovation and technology has been featured in Forbes, Huffington Post and Inc. At Yeti, Tony works on strategy, product design and day to day operations, hopping in and working with the development teams when needed. Follow Tony on Twitter.

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