Bill Betten, Director of Solutions at S3 Connected Health
I’ve spent nearly 40 years working in the medical and life science industry, advancing device and product development.
Looking at where we are now, what strikes me is just how far we’ve come, and how rapidly we’re progressing, particularly in the last decade. Connected medical devices are becoming a mainstay of the healthcare system – in fact, last year the market was valued at $23.17 billion, and latest predictions suggest it will reach a huge $77.24 billion by 2025. We’re fast approaching a future where connected devices underpin every point in the healthcare journey, from preventative care through diagnosis and treatment.
To find out how far connected devices and digital health has come – and what the future looks like – I spoke to Mark Wehde, chair of the Mayo Clinic Division of Engineering.
Having trained as a biomedical engineer, and with over three decades at the Mayo Clinic, Mark shares his thoughts on the key trends impacting the industry and provides advice for healthcare companies on responding to inevitable digital transformation...
Mark, you’ve been in the industry for over 30 years now. Can you tell us about your early work in digital health?
When I started out, a lot of the microprocessors and other technologies we use today were still relatively new. That meant we had to design a lot of systems internally, as there wasn’t really any existing infrastructure or commercial products you could purchase.
One of my main early projects, for example, was an end-to-end outpatient ECG monitoring system. But we had to develop the entire system. It was designed to accommodate 50–100 patients a day for ECG monitoring. Internally we designed and fabricated the electrodes, managing the analog electronics, dealing with the microcontroller systems that digitize and transmit data, and the IT systems to store data and create reports. In short, it was very complex.
If we fast forward to today, what’s different? What has been the biggest driving force behind the growth in digital health solutions?
With so many networks and so much infrastructure in place nowadays – think instant wireless connections, extremely advanced servers, unlimited data storage, computational power for data analytics – what you can achieve is entirely different.
Just look at people with heart-rate monitors in their smart watches. We needed an entire lab to do that before!
The explosion of consumer connected devices; health and wellness apps; wearable technologies; the birth of the cloud – all these things simply weren’t around 30 years ago or really even a decade ago, and they’re enabling huge growth in the consumer wearable market. The expectation is that healthcare follows suit.
Patients want as much care at home as possible, and healthcare providers want to deliver on the ultimate goal of helping patients live healthier lives; the two factors combined are pushing the industry to embrace digital health practices and connected devices more than ever before.
What impact has this changing infrastructure had on patient care and outcomes?
Firstly, increased connectivity and computational power is opening the door to long-term remote monitoring. That allows us to build up a more comprehensive view of the condition and progress of individual patients compared with that from a single hospital visit. In fact, it allows some institutions to provide care solely remotely – the Mercy Virtual Care Center in St Louis is just one example.
The second trend is long-term preventative monitoring. Today’s elderly don’t want to age the way their parents did. They want treatment at home, not in the hospital. With simple, regular tests every day for things like blood sugar, ECG, and weight, we can give them that comfort, and use the data to diagnose and intervene much earlier and prevent illnesses like heart disease and diabetes.
That’s remarkable. Of course, we can’t talk about remote care and how healthcare is changing without looking at current events... Can you give us a sense of how the pandemic has brought about or accelerated change in healthcare?
While we were making good progress before the pandemic, admittedly, the adoption of new health technologies was still pretty slow. (To be fair, a lot of the technology is still very new; you have to remember even the iPhone – which underpins a lot of what we call digital health today – is only just over ten years old.)
The pandemic, however, has made it very clear that a move towards remote care is the right thing to do. In fact, looking back at our plans, what we thought was aggressive six months ago wasn’t aggressive enough. We now need to go further and faster. To get a sense of scale, 40% of routine appointments were held virtually by the middle of this summer and even now we are still seeing a twenty-fold increase over our pre-pandemic numbers.
Now at this stage, most of these appointments are just routine conversations between patients and doctors or specialists online. We haven’t moved into the phase of diagnostics or anything just yet. But the direction is clear.
So, carrying on in this direction, what does the future of remote care look like?
There’s a lot of different factors at play here, and there are multiple groups with intersecting interests, from patients, to care providers, to insurers, and regulators. It’s a lot to balance.
At Mayo Clinic, we’re looking into all the factors and trying to predict: what does healthcare look like in 20 years? What about 2070?
There’s a lot we can’t answer, but one thing is sure: Remote healthcare is the future. There’s two ways you can respond to that: either you think the process of adapting is too hard, you don’t bother, and someone else does it. Or you realize it’s going to happen, one way or another, and take steps to engage in transformation.
As an industry, if we figure out how to do this, and re-define what we do and how our businesses operate, we’re engaging in change, rather than resisting it. I think that’s the key to success in the future.
As Mark says, whether it’s consumers and entry-level technology that drive development, or health companies themselves, change is coming. What counts now is how we react and adapt to that change.
So how can we – consumers, clinicians, healthcare firms, and regulators alike – prepare for what’s coming? To find out more, look out for my upcoming blog on the topic.