Point of View

Forecasting the future of the digital health revolution

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We have entered an age in which technology has far surpassed human capabilities. Artificial intelligence (AI) is no longer a figment of science fiction fantasy. The number of computations that a common mobile device can perform is out of reach of the human brain. As a result of this evolution computer systems can realistically mimic the human brain in a manner that was not possible a decade ago, and at a cost that is no longer prohibitive.

Even as the likes of Google harness vast arrays of powerful computing capabilities scattered across the globe, yet actually, it is possible to recreate quite sophisticated computational brains inside a single smartphone by utilizing its powerful graphical computational power, normally used to render realistic looking immersive 3D games complete with complex rules and progressive AI-based characters that learn how you play with them over time, and adapt their interaction accordingly.

It brings a new meaning to the word “smart" phone! So what does this mean for the future? Well, this will monumentally change sectors such as healthcare.

For example, the future will hold a plethora of real-life applications of such sophisticated computer-based brains that are able to predict the likelihood an individual may have of having a heart attack based on historical trend analysis of both personal lifestyles banded together with data evaluation of millions of other people who have opted in to being monitored. This data would be then proactive and autonomous advice on how to mitigate your chances accordingly.

There are several start-ups working in this area alone.

The intersection of medical and technological developments has been long standing, but only now is the computational power and its application into learning from vast volumes of structured and unstructured data, enabling us to see the potential of this in ways that will undoubtedly change our very lives and how long we live them.

Apple recognized this before Steve Jobs' untimely death. If you read the biography of Jobs' life, then you get a glimpse into what they had planned, with the Apple Watch and Apple Health Kit being the first incarnation of Apple hardware and software combining to give some meaningful insight into your health.

Another company that has seen the future is Withings. This company created its first product called Pulse some years back, long before the Apple Watch. It monitors your steps, just like a Fitbit, but it also can take your pulse using a small green LED on the reverse of the device; and it happens to monitor your sleep pattern too. It also has a smart scale that monitors, of course, your weight, but also your fat percentage, and your heart rate, as well as a blood pressure monitor.

All this technology is consumer-grade, not medical grade, but algorithms can be used to adjust for that, and crucially it is the data these devices gather over time, and the pattern of your individual health (sleep, heart rate, blood pressure, weight, fat content, etc.) that is gathered can be telling, but when compared with someone else of similar age and size (both of which are captured on first use) then it can be even more valuable at predicting your future health, especially as trend and history is built up.

Yet so much affects our health, from what we eat and drink to what kind of work we do as well as social economic background, including the quality of air we breathe, etc. that it isn't enough to gather just the above.

The gathering of this data is really only possible thanks to the advent of the smartphone, which has heralded-in the acceptance of passive data capture by so many “useful" apps that are easily downloaded onto your personal device. It is the fact that this is a personal device that makes it so valuable to you and those that want to use your data, because it captures data about you personally, directly from you.

Just think, that if Apple hadn't reinvented the smartphone then perhaps Google wouldn't have followed suit, and perhaps Microsoft with Nokia wouldn't have joined the party, and instead we would still have no unified app economy that enables an app to transcend smartphone operating platform and give a harmonized user experience and interaction no matter what device it is on?

Add into that mix the connected world – the Internet of Things – such as the Withings or netatmo connected devices – and the world is buzzing with data. It will not be long before all this data is combined, analysed and your health becomes a preoccupation of a Google or Apple or NHS [in the UK] app that intervenes and course corrects you before you end up being a costly admission to the hospital and more crucially a potential hazard to yourself or others around you, e.g. when driving.

But where there is progress there is risk, and the worst case scenario for such development within the technological health sphere is a confidential data breach that exposes some intimately person patient information or data results in a misdiagnosis. However, in reality that can and should be preventable.

In the end, the best case scenario a world that becomes a fundamentally better place to live and live longer because of actionable insights afforded to us through mass data harvesting and positive intervention taken upon predictive outputs, and in doing so, generates better quality of life for the patients and also reduces the burden on public health providers such as the NHS. These kinds of activities – using computers to assist with human problems – will only become more valuable to us, and become more common place across multiple industries as we progress this decade into 2020 and beyond. So from medical screening for things to which you did not know you might be susceptible, to your bank handling your concerns before you have to call them, advances in digital technologies are changing how individuals and organisations interact, and creating radically new possibilities for value delivery.

However, organisations and enterprises bringing these solutions to market must be pragmatic. In our experience, all new technologies that need interoperability with established operations and systems, and need to use big data can struggle initially with finding the right use cases and then with the execution. With easily accessible technology and a relatively supportive funding environment, many are scrambling to create “me too products" for what they believe needs to be fixed in healthcare.

An overt focus on the digital front-end without considering the implications for the operations needed to support the customer experience expectations can result in a glut of nonviable (and unprofitable) false-starts. Structured customer-centric problem-solving approaches such as design thinking that focus on people and their emotional responses help identify what matters to people – customers, service providers, and other stakeholders. A design thinking approach looks beyond functional needs and can unearth customers' emotions and other sources of value often missed by other methods.

Successful solutions must be built on a foundation of intelligent operations – that sense, act, and learn, at scale. These operations must continuously harness data and insights from not just the individual but across a wider ecosystem - community, care-givers, physicians, and so on, and then ensure that those insights are turned into actions that leads to process or behavioral changes, in scalable ways. This step is often the hardest for organisations—not simply having advanced digital technologies and analytics but connecting with processes and making smart use of the data across the enterprise and broader ecosystem —to deliver the best new customer journey and value expectations created by digital.

This article was authored by Melville J. Carrie, Vice President, Digital at Genpact, and first published in IDG Connect on September 1, 2016.

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