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According to the UK government, artificial intelligence, robotics and digital medicine could change the functions and roles of clinical staff by 2040. This is expected to deliver improvements in care and productivity and reduce costs.
Telemedicine (e.g., provision of care with IT) and telecommunications, wearable sensors and smartphone apps are all likely to be used. Things have progressed more swiftly with regard to remote consultations owing to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Just like technology has revolutionised many aspects of our day-to-day lives, the healthcare sector will be no exception. From improving patient care and outcomes to enhancing efficiency and accessibility, technology will continue to play a crucial role in transforming the healthcare industry. In this article, we’ll delve into the world of technology in the healthcare sector, exploring its types, significance, applications, benefits and potential risks.
What is technology in the healthcare sector?
When we talk about technology in the healthcare sector, we refer to the utilisation of digital tools, devices, software and systems to enhance the delivery, management and accessibility of healthcare services. This encompasses a wide range of technologies, including websites, mobile applications, wearables, electronic health records (EHRs), telemedicine, artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, and more.
Types of technology in healthcare
The number of different types of technology is increasing every year. Here are some of the things that have emerged or that are emerging in the healthcare sector:
- Websites and Mobile Applications
Healthcare websites and mobile apps provide platforms for patients to access information, schedule appointments, refill prescriptions and communicate with healthcare providers. They also offer educational resources and remote monitoring capabilities.
- Wearable Devices
Wearable technology like fitness trackers and smartwatches, has gained popularity in general and among healthcare staff. These devices can monitor vital signs, track physical activity, detect irregularities and transmit data to healthcare professionals for analysis.
- Electronic Health Records (EHRs)
Electronic Health Records replace traditional paper-based patient records with electronic versions. This enables healthcare providers to store, access and share patient information more securely. These electronic records also streamline workflows, reduce errors and loss, facilitate data exchange, and enhance collaboration among healthcare professionals. They also take up much less room!
Telemedicine involves the use of videoconferencing and telecommunications technologies to provide remote medical consultations, diagnoses and treatment. This provides excellent opportunities for consultations that don’t require physical examinations or tests. For example, consultations regarding mental health.Telemedicine also enables patients in remote or underserved areas to access healthcare services, and it’s also useful for those who would find it physically difficult to attend an appointment, like those with agoraphobia.
Finally, videoconferencing and telemedicine reduce travel time and costs, and enhance the overall efficiency of healthcare delivery.
- Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML)
AI and ML technologies are increasingly being applied in healthcare for tasks such as medical imaging analysis, personalised treatment recommendations, predictive analytics and automation of administrative processes. These technologies have the potential to improve diagnosis accuracy, optimise treatment plans and enhance patient outcomes.
Why is technology used in healthcare?
There are many reasons technology is used in healthcare.
Here are some of them:
1. Improved Efficiency: Digital tools automate routine tasks, streamline workflows and enable healthcare professionals to work more efficiently, reducing administrative burden and increasing productivity.
2. Enhanced Communication and Collaboration: Technology facilitates seamless communication and collaboration among healthcare providers. This enables the sharing of patient information, consultations and coordination of care.
3. Access to Information: Digital platforms provide patients and healthcare professionals with easy access to medical knowledge, research, educational resources and clinical guidelines. They support evidence-based decision-making.
4. Remote Monitoring and Care: Technology enables remote patient monitoring, allowing healthcare providers to track vital signs, symptoms and adherence to treatment plans from a distance. This approach is particularly beneficial for managing chronic conditions and postoperative care.
The development of telemedicine during COVID-19
Though the COVID-19 pandemic was a difficult period for the health service, it also significantly accelerated the development and adoption of telemedicine as a means of delivering healthcare services remotely.
The contagious nature of COVID-19 meant there was increased demand and necessity for telemedicine, particularly when it came to non-emergency consultations, follow-ups and mental health support.
The pandemic also drove technological advancements and innovation. Videoconferencing software like secure messaging platforms and remote monitoring devices were enhanced to accommodate the increased demand and provide a seamless virtual care experience.
There has also been more acceptance among patients too. In the past, patients were less likely to see the value in telemedicine. However, the contagious nature of COVID-19 meant that more and more people embraced it and saw the added benefits of reduced travel time and costs. Patient feedback to these experiences has also fuelled the development and refinement of telemedicine services.
Is technology important in the healthcare sector?
Technology is of significant importance in the healthcare sector. Firstly, technology can be used to enhance patient care and outcomes, which is the main goal of healthcare professionals. With accurate and up-to-date patient information, healthcare professionals can make informed decisions and provide timely interventions.
Like in many aspects of life, technology improves efficiency and productivity in the healthcare sector too. It can be used to automate routine administrative tasks, streamline workflows and reduce paperwork. This means that healthcare professionals can focus more on patient care. With digital systems, there is enhanced efficiency and less room for error.
Technology is also important in that it helps many patients overcome geographical barriers, which is important in rural areas, for example. Digital platforms and mobile applications can also provide valuable resources and information to empower patients about their health and to access services in a way that’s convenient for them.
The healthcare sector also benefits greatly from effective collaboration and communication as a result of new technologies. Professionals can also use technology to aid in their decision-making. They can gain valuable insights, which can help in disease prevention and the development of personalised treatment plans.
How can technology be used in healthcare?
There are many different ways in which the healthcare industry can use technology, some of which we’ve already mentioned.
Here are some common applications:
- Electronic Health Records (EHRs): EHRs are the digital systems that store patient health information like medical history, diagnoses, medications and test results. They enable healthcare providers to access and share patient data securely, leading to improved care coordination and continuity.
- Telemedicine: This refers to the remote delivery of healthcare services through videoconferencing, phone calls or online messaging platforms. Patients can consult with healthcare professionals, receive diagnoses and access treatment advice from the comfort of their homes.
- Wearable Devices and Remote Monitoring: Wearable devices like fitness trackers, smartwatches and medical sensors can monitor vital signs, physical activity and sleep patterns. These technologies enable healthcare providers to track patients’ health conditions, detect abnormalities and intervene when necessary.
- Health Apps and Patient Portals: Mobile applications and patient portals mean patients can access health information, schedule appointments, receive medication reminders and track their health.
- Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML): AI and ML technologies can be used to analyse large volumes of data to identify patterns, predict outcomes and assist in diagnoses. They can also automate administrative tasks, enhance clinical decision-making and personalise treatment plans based on individual patient characteristics.
- Robotics and Automation: These are increasingly used in healthcare for a range of purposes. For example, robots can assist surgeons during complex surgeries, provide support in physical therapy and automate repetitive tasks to improve efficiency.
- Health Information Exchange (HIE): HIE allows secure sharing of patient health information among different healthcare organisations and systems. It enables healthcare providers to access comprehensive patient records, resulting in more informed decisions and reduced duplication of tests or procedures.
- Data Analytics and Population Health Management: Data analytics tools can process large healthcare datasets to identify trends, patterns and population health insights. This information can guide public health interventions, resource allocation, and proactive disease prevention strategies.
Examples of wearable devices in practice
Most people these days are familiar with the concept of smartwatches and fitness trackers. Items such as Fitbit, Garmin and Apple watches are popular devices that monitor and track physical activity, heart rate, sleep patterns and calories burned. Some smartwatches can even detect blood pressure and oxygen saturation levels. In a general sense, they’re great at encouraging individuals to adopt healthier lifestyles and learn more about their health and bodies.
Another common item of technology that is already used well in society is the Continuous Glucose Monitor or CGM. CGMs are wearable devices used by people with diabetes to monitor their blood glucose levels continuously. The devices provide real-time data and alerts and help people to manage their insulin levels and make informed decisions about diet and medication.
Wearable ECG monitors are also available. These allow individuals to record their electrocardiograms wherever and whenever. The devices detect abnormal heart rhythms and provide important data that can help to diagnose and monitor heart conditions.
Benefits of technology in the healthcare sector
There are, of course, many benefits of the use of technology in healthcare. First and foremost, technology benefits patients as it enables healthcare providers to make diagnoses more accurately. This is also because it can be used to develop personalised treatment plans and check out patient progress more easily.
What’s more, technology makes for enhanced productivity and efficiency. Thanks to digital tools, administrative tasks, information exchange and workflows can be automated and streamlined. This results in more time to focus on patient care.
There’s also the benefit of increasing access to healthcare for patients in remote areas or for those who have mobility problems.
There’s also a lot of data and information made available thanks to healthcare technology. For example, patients themselves can be more empowered with access to their own health information as well as self-management tools and educational resources.
This access to data means that health information can be analysed on a wider scale. This analysis means professionals can gain valuable insights into disease patterns, health trends within the population, resource allocation and treatment outcomes.
Finally, technology also means better communication and collaboration among healthcare providers, which improves the overall quality and continuation of care.
Risks of technology in the healthcare sector
Like any part of our lives that use technology, there are risks for the healthcare sector too. Firstly, one of the biggest concerns for all is privacy and security. When it comes to health data, breaches, leaks or unauthorised access can compromise sensitive patient information. The biggest risks of this include medical fraud or identity theft.
Another risk is system failure or glitches. When we rely on technology, we expose the healthcare sector to potential disruption caused by technical glitches, system failures or even cyberattacks. There’s also the potential that AI algorithms might not be as accurate as humans, which could lead to incorrect diagnoses or treatment recommendations.
Now that the NHS operates in a trust system, different areas will use different systems and technologies. This can lead to an incompatibility, which can hinder the sharing of information as well as the coordination of care.
Finally, one huge concern is that there is the potential of becoming over reliant or even dependent on technology to such an extent that human interaction and clinical judgement are reduced. It’s crucial to strike a balance between technology and the expertise of existing healthcare professionals to ensure optimal patient care.
Final thoughts on technology in healthcare settings
Technology has brought numerous benefits to the healthcare sector and is responsible for improved patient outcomes, increased access to care, better communication and enhanced efficiency. However, it’s also important to address the risks associated with technology like privacy concerns and technical glitches. By carefully considering these risks and implementing appropriate safeguards, healthcare organisations can harness the full potential of new technologies while ensuring patient safety and privacy.
Looking ahead, the development of telemedicine during the COVID-19 pandemic has showcased the tremendous potential of technology in healthcare. It has accelerated the adoption of remote care, changed regulations and spurred technological advancements, paving the way for a future where telemedicine is an integral part of healthcare delivery.
As technology continues to advance, it is crucial for healthcare organisations, policymakers and stakeholders to embrace innovation, ensure patient safety and privacy and foster an environment that maximises the benefits of technology in healthcare. By leveraging technology effectively, the healthcare sector can enhance patient outcomes, improve access to care and transform the delivery of healthcare services for individuals and communities worldwide for the better.