ARtificial intelligence

From AI to 5G: big tech meets healthcare

Looking into the future of medical technology, Giacomo Lee discovers the role AI will play at the intersection of healthcare and technology – and it’s not the only innovative power in this space.

If one story gave a clue to the future of medtech in 2021, a likely contender would be Microsoft’s acquisition of Nuance Communications for $19.7bn last April.

Nuance is a UK-based speech recognition company best known for having provided the speech recognition engine that powers Siri, the smart assistant that talks to Apple customers around the world. The company, however, mostly makes its money through enterprise artificial intelligence (AI) tools that transcribe doctors’ notes, along with customer service calls and voicemails.

“Physicians, nurses and everyone involved not having to take manual notes allows them to treat more patients and spend more time on care,” says GlobalData analyst David Brown, commenting on the Nuance deal. Brown, who calls Microsoft “the big monster that moved into the clinical side of the space”, believes the Nuance acquisition will “greatly bolster big tech’s position in provider-based conversational AI with cloud capabilities.”

GlobalData forecasts that the market for AI platforms for the entire health industry will reach $4.3bn in three years’ time. That’s 8.2% of the $52bn market total for AI platforms forecast for 2024.

Healthcare AI in 2022

Digital transformation has been seen for years as an excellent way to streamline operational models and enhance productivity in healthcare, but the pandemic made the need more pressing.

Following increased interest in AI during the pandemic, in 2022 there will be more visibility on the uses of AI, from shortening drug discovery timelines and enhancing supply chain efficiency, to improving clinical trial design and recruitment.

Digital and virtual tools will likely address the demand for better patient care in 2022. Some examples we’ve seen in the space of virtual therapies include smart watches and apps which react to biomarkers, and companies offering their employees online counselling via Zoom, meditation apps and even virtual reality.

While usage patterns indicate that the demand for virtual care caused by Covid-19 may have peaked, GlobalData polls suggest that there will still be demand for these services beyond the pandemic.

Pharma companies looking to capitalise on this explosion in innovation have increasingly partnered with smaller healthtech startups to co-develop solutions.

Investment, competition, collaboration and loosening reimbursement policies will continue to drive this patient-centric trend into 2022. But only the development of enabling technologies will allow healthcare to embrace the digitalisation of services.

“Pharma companies looking to capitalise on this explosion in innovation have increasingly partnered with smaller healthtech startups to co-develop solutions, building on the startups’ proprietary expertise and combining with pharma’s clinical and disease knowledge,” says GlobalData managing analyst Roxanne Balfe. “Large tech companies coming from a broader perspective simply don’t have the same disease-based or clinical knowledge.”

Big tech companies like Microsoft will intensify their efforts to succeed and provide avenues for healthcare entities to rapidly integrate new technologies.

Augmented health

For a glimpse of medtech’s future, it’s worth looking at the emerging tech 5G could help galvanise.

Take augmented reality (AR). With 5G, networks can be virtually sliced to provide a range of different service characteristics for different use cases, and ultra-reliable and low-latency communications will support AR use cases in healthcare.

A recent GlobalData report on digital health solutions in neurology suggests that VR and AR are “well placed as a therapy product for neuropsychological conditions because virtual simulations of the outside world are highly realistic and immersive, as well as being non-invasive and non-pharmacological.”

Simulations offer less time-consuming options in comparison to some pharmacological interventions due to their immersive attributes, making for highly engaging forms of therapy.

Healthcare companies are increasing their connectivity / digitalisation and tech companies are capitalising on this.

Indeed, AR technology already appears in therapies for chronic pain, mental health and addiction, behavioural conditions and neurorehabilitation.

In general, AR in medical devices is led by smaller vendors specialising in software and apps, according to GlobalData analyst Aliyah Farouk. But big tech players are investing in healthcare and working with the industry’s giants. Roche, for example, partnered with Samsung’s AR/VR subsidiary Harman in 2020.

“Harman’s collaboration with Roche and Microsoft’s recent purchase of Nuance are reflective of this trend where healthcare companies are increasing their connectivity/digitalisation and tech companies are capitalising on this,” says Farouk.

The robotic future of medtech

Robotics also had a good year in 2021, one sign of which was CMR Surgical’s $600m round last June.

5G-enabled surgical robots allow for smoother remote operation by humans. Early clinical studies have shown that spinal procedures can be conducted remotely on a 5G connection. This may mean patients in more rural areas may one day be able to receive surgery from a remote specialist without the need for extensive travel.

It is estimated that there will be 3.7 million robotic surgical procedures in 2022. For-profit entities like CMR Surgical will drive initial adoption, and early leaders will cause an explosion of adoption in hospitals and public-based healthcare systems. However, high costs will likely hinder widespread adoption.

“The next generation of surgeons is very supportive of surgical robotics and we expect to see much greater adoption of surgical robotics and technology more generally in the future,” as CMR Surgical CEO Per Vegard Nerseth told Verdict last year.

“We know that seven in 10 surgeons would like to see their surgical robotics use increase, and the increased presence of virtual training technologies – such as our virtual trainer – as well as the integration of robotic systems into more and more hospitals and surgical training programs, will naturally allow this to happen through increased awareness and exposure.”

The role of 5G in public health

Another emerging trend in healthcare is smart hospitals powered by connected devices and 5G.

The smart hospitals of the future envisioned by KT Corporation and Samsung Medical Center in South Korea will have 5G-connected cameras to allow high-quality video and audio streams of the operating theatre to be shared to other locations, improving the education of resident physicians. An internal 5G network will allow for large data files, such as those from diagnostic imaging machines, to be transferred to different departments.

Smart hospitals may also allow patients to have 5G-enabled on-body health monitoring sensors which can allow physicians access to their real-time health metric data without being physically present. This allows staff to react faster to any changes and make better informed decisions regarding treatments.

Smart building technologies have found new applications as cities reopen, with sensor networks regulating ventilation or measuring occupancy.

5G means smart, speedier healthcare. And it has a part to play in public health, too.

The pandemic has demonstrated the value of digital platforms capable of tracking infection. For example, Chicago’s use of the Blue Dot health data platform provided an early indication of the Covid-19 pandemic that pre-empted the initial warning from the World Health Organization.

Smart building technologies have found new applications as cities reopen, with sensor networks regulating ventilation or measuring occupancy. In other words, your health may be monitored not just as you frequent smart hospital wards, but also as you take your next stroll around the smart city.

Being low cost, low power and wireless, 5G is potentially a huge enabler of the level of IoT connectivity this approach will require.

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