The future of healthcare: the proliferation of data

By Dr Andrew Feeney
Dr Andrew Feeney, IEEE member and lecturer in Ultrasonics at the University of Glasgow, explains how data is impacting healthcare

The urgency of the COVID-19 pandemic has driven unprecedented digital transformation throughout healthcare. As stated in the UK's Department of Health and Social Care’s (DHSCs) latest strategy document, the measures necessary in managing the impact of COVID-19 have, in many ways, proven once again that ‘data saves lives’.

The introduction of health measures to reliably track COVID-19 symptoms and reduce transmission rates remains essential to the continued reopening of society, and is an example of how technology can be applied to manage future health crises.

Engineers are at the forefront of driving new modes of healthcare technology which will enable a patient-centred approach to health and well-being for the 21st century. Key technologies in this drive will take the form of advanced wearable devices, communication systems, and a new generation of surgical devices.

The rise of wearable devices

Wearable technologies are already highly popular for fitness and exercise, through wearables which can be accessed on multiple devices, or to meet general lifestyle demands such as links with systems in the home.

However, wearable devices are continuing to transform healthcare delivery, a trend that is set to continue in the coming years. There has been a significant growth in this area, specifically monitoring various health indicators, including respiration, blood pressure and temperature.

The proliferation of electronic wearable devices for monitoring health, from their emergence around the 1990s to the present day, is in part a reflection of individual desire to become more responsible for one’s own health and wellbeing. These technologies have also brought patients closer to their own healthcare and fitness, as instant communication is now possible. In fact, patient data can now be stored and communicated in a continuous stream for live-monitoring purposes. 

Advances in electronics

The fundamental enablers of wearable technologies have been developments in electronics and energy supply, for example in flexible circuitry and high-speed wireless communications, and nanogenerators with regards to energy.

The configuration and cost of wearable technologies is changing rapidly, partly due to user demands. Constant reliable monitoring and communication requires a highly robust energy supply. Traditionally, chemical-cell batteries have been the favoured option, but with increased technological demands, there have been developments into energy harvesting solutions for wearable devices.

These include harvesting from the upper or lower limbs, such as from walking. Harvesters can take piezoelectric or triboelectric forms, allowing self-powering functionality removing the need for chemical batteries, and opening the possibility for directly integrating the harvesting capability into the device structure.

As these technologies continue to evolve, the quantity of data able to be captured and processed will grow. By acquiring multiple data streams, it will be possible to construct a complete profile of a person’s health.

However, there have been reports of concerns from health professionals regarding the value of the collected data and data privacy. These must be considered before healthcare systems adopt wearable devices. Nevertheless, the rise of wearable devices for health monitoring is likely to continue, with new concepts and materials set to be integrated with faster and more reliable communications.

‘Big data’ and proactive healthcare

With our increased reliance on wearables devices, ‘big data’ will need to be properly managed and administered for the benefit of patients. Indeed, big data has the potential to confer advantages including lowering the cost of treatments and predicting epidemic outbreaks far quicker than we have been able to in recent years.

The health of patients, their routines, diets and general lifestyle are only a few parameters which could be used to map the general profile of communities from a healthcare perspective and implement valuable strategies.

For example, perhaps there some geographical locations which would benefit from a different staffing level to another. Or general trends in food consumption in a particular community which might indicate an increased cancer risk. Of course, there are constraints which must be addressed first, whether data privacy or slow technology adoption.  

Future surgical operations and delivery

There is now a focus on combining advanced mathematical algorithms, artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics, with conventional surgical procedures to enable highly precise operations to be undertaken which would not have been possible previously.

The transition to intelligence-based surgery is in part based on the drive to deliver surgeries which are tailored to the individual, for significantly improved outcomes. For example, how deep learning can predict complications or determine surgical risk. Machine learning can be used to screen diseases, and even in the delivery of anaesthesia. These capabilities are invaluable, and can help develop the optimal course of action for treatment and recovery for patients.

Considering AI, the reports of robotics used to aid and enhance surgical procedures are growing in number. With rapid improvements to electronics, computational algorithms, and control, there have been many recent developments with real potential for future application.

For example, minimally invasive cardiac surgery undertaken with robotic assistance has reported to mitigate blood loss to an extent that patients, in some cases, can return to relative normality in two weeks. Other reports confirm these advantages, including the lowered risks of complications and the reduced recovery times since much smaller incisions in the body are possible. However, there have been reports that robotically enhanced surgery provides only modest improvements to outcomes. Nevertheless, it is clear that these technologies will benefit every patient.

An exciting development in recent years has been the advent of UltraSurge, a £6.1m multi-institution programme undertaken across the Universities of Glasgow, Edinburgh, Birmingham, Leeds, and Southampton in the UK to revolutionise surgery by integration with ultrasonic technologies. Advantages include improved precision, reduced force required for incision, selectivity in the tissues to be cut, and the potential for reduced tissue necrosis, thus improving patient recovery time. Indeed, it is expected that such ultrasonic-enhanced surgery will become widespread in the coming years.

Needless to say, the pandemic has accelerated healthcare’s digital transformation and the rise of data. The next challenge will be how to make sense of all this information and use it to our advantage. 


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