Technology has been central to our response to the Covid-19 pandemic, from the first sequencing of the virus to the unprecedented speed with which vaccines have been developed, tested and deployed. And technology will continue to play a vital role in tracking mutant strains of the virus, supporting stressed healthcare systems and addressing the mental-health effects on exhausted people.
The relevance of digital tools and applications in healthcare goes far beyond pandemics. Aging populations in many parts of the world face chronic or degenerative conditions, such as heart disease and dementia. In developing countries, access to on-site healthcare services is often limited, particularly in rural areas. Cutting-edge technologies, including artificial intelligence (AI), the Internet of Things (IoT), human-machine interfaces, and bio-digital twins are being harnessed to offer potential solutions.
As the pandemic unfolded, healthcare systems turned to technology to help manage consultations without the threat of contagion. Dr. Kátia Galvane, Director of Health at everis Brasil, an NTT DATA subsidiary, says one Brazilian insurance company saw its telemedicine appointments increase from 200 per month to more than 2,000 per day.
“People talk about a ‘new normal,’ but this is not a new normal; it’s a new way of life,” says Dr. Galvane. “Many of these relationships are changed forever and people will continue to use things like telemedicine.”
Her team has been investigating the effects of the pandemic on mental health. Humanity has faced a range of challenges, from the isolation of lockdown and the adjustment to remote working, to juggling home-schooling, caring responsibilities and work. “There have been many cases of burnout,” she says, “and many of the effects on people will be permanent.”
Mobile applications can help with some of these. Individuals who struggle to discuss their mental health often feel more comfortable sharing their feelings through a chat app, for example. And for people who are really struggling, an app that monitors sleep patterns, exercise levels and other metrics has the potential to detect behavioral changes that indicate depression and send an alert to family members or a trusted friend.
One challenge is making these digital tools more accessible to those who find technology unfamiliar or challenging, such as the elderly. In Australia, Deakin University, Western Sydney University and NTT Australia have partnered to develop technology for people with dementia and their carers. Dementia patients struggle with short-term memory, so any technology they use must be straightforward. Their carers, meanwhile, are often too busy to learn new interfaces and platforms.
“The obvious place you might start with technology, if you were thinking about an elderly person or somebody living with dementia, is ‘give them an iPad’,” says Dr. Celia Harris, an award-winning neuroscientist at Western Sydney University. “But people living with dementia can’t use those kinds of tools, and that’s what we’re really starting to grapple with now. What does the interface have to look like in order to be seamless and user-friendly for somebody living with dementia?”
“The challenge is figuring out how to do security at speed of business”
That means finding a way to put the power of a device like an iPad into an interface that dementia patients find more familiar, such as an old-style telephone. It could be an app that reminds someone to take their medicine or brush their teeth. Or a smart fridge that reminds them that they haven’t had lunch. These tools don’t replace human carers and aren’t meant to. But they can ease the pressure on carers, who are often overwhelmed and at risk from burnout because of the constant demands on their time.
“The key is to harness all that complex and advanced technology, but to actually render it in a very low-tech or no-tech experience,” says Debra Bordignon, CTO of NTT Australia. “We’ve got to turn all these technologies into a natural digital atmosphere.”
Both dementia and Covid-19 are conditions that can affect people very differently. In fact, lots of health problems vary in symptoms and severity. Treatments don’t always affect people in the same way, either. This is where an emerging technology, the bio-digital twin, shows promise.
Experiments are already being conducted with bio-digital twins of the human heart. These are virtual models of the heart and the rest of the cardiovascular system, constructed from imaging scans, measurements of the heart’s activity from electrocardiograms (ECGs), and artificial intelligence. For example, a digital replica of the heart of a patient suffering from heart disease, the main cause of death worldwide, has the potential to predict when their condition might worsen. The digital replica can also be used to test the effects of drugs before they are prescribed to the patient.
“In 25 to 30 years, we might all have digital twins for healthcare,” says Dr. Joe Alexander of NTT’s Medical and Health Informatics lab. “If we can treat the most serious conditions with digital twins, then we can unburden the healthcare system.”
This ties back to the challenge of Covid-19. Scientists predict there will be more pandemics in future. How our healthcare systems cope will largely depend on the ability of technology to ease the burden of dealing with routine consultations and chronic conditions. As with so many other aspects of life, technology is transforming healthcare for the benefit of society.
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