As they say, new year, new beginnings; and this also applies to the field of digital health! With the COVID-19 pandemic still raging, the crisis has led to the adoption of certain trends in response to the challenges it raised. In general, this tends to bring the point of care to wherever the patient is. As more investment and research focus are diverted towards those relevant fields, this will help generate more innovations from those areas.

Even if they might not become the point of focus in 2022, these “predictions” usually follow through with time. For instance, for 2020 we forecasted a new line of Google-branded smart trackers. While this did not happen in 2020, new reports about such a device emerged in 2021; and the health tracker might be released in 2022.

So to get ready for this new year full of digital health potentials, let’s take a peek at 5 fields to expect medical innovation and developments out of.

1. Vocal biomarkers: identifying conditions from a conversation

Computer, run a health check-up from my vocal input.” This line might seem to have been lifted from a Star Trek script, but we are close to having such conversations with our computers. With A.I.-based techniques, symptom checker software can detect so-called “vocal biomarkers”. By analysing a person’s voice recording, the algorithm can discern differences between vocal patterns characteristic of certain diseases.

This is the technology that startup Sonaphi is employing in its app that aims to detect potential COVID-19 infections based on vocal features.

Earlier during the pandemic, researchers and engineers from San Francisco explored such potential through the Cough for the Cure initiative. Other organisations like Cambridge University, Carnegie Mellon University and U. K. health start-up Novoic have also been reported to be working on similar projects.

We could thus see more such voice-tech apps to be released this year that might potentially help identify conditions beyond COVID-19. They could offer fast, accurate and cost-effective checkups remotely while alleviating the burden on hospitals.

2. A.I. in diagnostics: the physician’s assistant

The pandemic highlighted A.I.’s potential in healthcare and the technology will continue to bring its disruptive force in this field. In 2022, we can expect more applications of A.I. in diagnostics beyond identifying COVID-19 from coughs.

For instance, with dermatology apps like MiiSkin and Google’s Derm Assist, patients can keep track of their skin lesions; receive regular reminders to monitor any suspicious lesions; and get recommendations as to when to have a specialist investigate further.

Clinicians as well will have A.I.-based tools to support diagnoses. PathAI is developing a system that uses digital pathology slides with A. I. technology to aid pathologists in making quicker and more accurate diagnoses. With deep learning techniques, Enlitic’s software can flag radiology images with subtle suspicious signs earlier to speed up the workflow of practitioners and help save crucial time for patients.

Now we even have companies like DeepMind using their A.I. to predict protein structure, a task that clinicians cannot accomplish themselves. This approach can help develop new cures for conditions with faulty proteins. Their A.I. previously helped predict the risk of developing acute kidney disease 2 days before it manifests based on patients’ medical records and lab results.

With such potential across clinical practice, we should not be surprised to see new A. I. tools coming to the aid of doctors and patients alike.

3. Chatbots: the new first contact point for primary care

During the pandemic, smart algorithms have also proven their worth in assisting healthcare professionals to distinguish those who could have been infected with COVID-19 from those with less threatening conditions. Institutions like the NHS and the WHO deployed such tools to ease the pressure on overburdened healthcare systems.

But these little medical helpers have been under development for years and a number of those are available on the market. These range from general symptom assessment Ada to mental health monitoring app Youper. Fuelled by the pandemic, their adoption can be expected to rise and we will be able to see more chatbots being developed for more specific medical conditions.

In the future, patients might even turn to such chatbots as their first contact point for primary care. Patients will then be connected to a doctor in case the automated assistant cannot respond to the raised issues confidently. 

4. At-home testing kits: lab tests at your doorstep

One of the futuristic healthcare innovations that are the easiest to put into practice now is likely at-home testing. With a personal testing kit, one can measure a range of health parameters that used to be only available in laboratories. 

From microbiome analyses to whole-genome sequencing, such at-home lab tests provide crucial, personalised health information in a private and convenient manner; while lifting off additional pressure on healthcare institutions.

The rise of at-home lab tests has also been precipitated by the need to identify COVID-19 infections quickly and effectively. In the near future, these tests could become as easy and accessible as pregnancy tests; cheap, simple enough to use at home, accurate and not requiring any technical knowledge. 

5. Digital health insurance: revamping the industry

With the significant load of personalised health data that wearables and personal health sensors provide, such digital health technologies hold the potential to change health insurance as we know it. For better or worse, health insurance companies are able to know more about the people they are investing in with quantifiable health parameters; and can revamp a flailing industry.

Some are already seizing the potentials of digital health in this sphere. Insurance firm Oscar Health famously incentivised a healthy lifestyle by rewarding U. S. customers with Amazon gift cards for achieving their daily goals as measured by Fitbit wearables. In Germany, at least six health insurance companies reimburse mySugr’s digital diabetes solution, which includes an app connected to blood glucose monitors for easier management of their condition; and this covers 15 million lives. We can expect to see similar approaches emerge in 2022.

However, this presents a slippery slope as it can lead to a leakage of one’s privacy and lifestyle choices. With such insights, insurance companies can modify plans and benefits accordingly; and can charge premiums for those who are more at risk of some conditions or are not taking proper care of their health.

This concludes our list of 5 areas in digital health that are worth keeping an eye on in 2022 and beyond. We will keep on reporting about developments along with those trends, so stay tuned for more!

Written by Dr. Bertalan Meskó & Dr. Pranavsingh Dhunnoo

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