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The Opportunities and Challenges of Digital Healthcare

Digital transformation in healthcare is opening up new opportunities and challenges for life sciences businesses and the industry at large.

The way that digital transformation adapted during the pandemic started a path in healthcare for greater efficiency and investment.

For businesses to capitalise on the gains offered by digital transformation, however, they need to have an awareness of the opportunities and challenges of digital healthcare.

What do life sciences businesses need to know, and what does the future hold for digital healthcare?

The investment outlook

In 2021, digital health startups raised $29.1bn across 729 deals, with investment in the market doubling that of 2020’s $14.9bn former record.

Investor attitudes have since become more cautious, owing to greater market volatility and a sharp correction after the fast start to the year.

Concerns around global energy supply and supply chain difficulties contrast heavily with the significant successes of 2021, which saw more capital deployed than the period between 2013-2017 combined.

Given that the healthcare and pharmaceutical industry has lagged so far behind in terms of implementing digital strategies, it’s unsurprising that this rapid transformation has now slowed down and resulted in greater caution from an investment perspective.

The full scale of this market is yet to be determined in terms of its true scale and ROI, but as its scope expands over the next few years, the picture will become clearer.

But what opportunities and challenges are arising in digital health?

Challenge: patient confidentiality and privacy

It would be difficult to discuss the challenges of digital healthcare without touching upon confidentiality as a key concern.

The large volume of data necessary for better patient outcomes also comes with issues around how secure a company’s cloud infrastructure and database is, and on a larger scale, how thorough their approach to confidentiality is.

Across the domains of digital health, data is being created that needs protection, and there are yet to be standards set around this privacy, data governance, or the ethical challenges involved.

Data governance is a particular area of concern, as even though many governments have made strides towards digitalisation, only half have privacy policies to protect the data.

Additionally, there needs to be a clear consideration of user consent when it comes to healthcare data – are users aware of the collection of their data? Are the terms of use clearly outlined in a way that stresses this?

There is also the necessity to have a clear differentiation between privacy and confidentiality as concepts.

Privacy relates to the handling process of sensitive and personal information, whereas confidentiality refers to ensuring that data is not used for any other purpose than that which was consented to.

Overcoming this challenge will require clear planning to address the potential risks involved, which will likely be on the horizon as digital health expands globally.

Opportunity: big data application

Big data offers a range of highly beneficial opportunities for digital healthcare and the life sciences industry at large.

For example, big data contributes significantly to precision medicine and predictive care by providing a larger volume of medical data than ever before.

These data patterns can be used to predict disease and treatment outcomes on an individual, patient-by-patient basis.

The increased use of electronic health, medical records and wearables mean that data is no longer stationary, but instead, can be transformed into knowledge that provides a basis for precision medicine models.

Being able to improve health-related outcomes is a major advancement for healthcare, as it means that the more sources of data there are, the more accurate and precise treatment will be.

Predictive analytics can also develop further based on the range of data a user provides (e.g. medication, body temperature, mood, menstruation days, birth control) to provide hints at cycles of activity or possible diseases; a prime example of this being period tracking technology to help women have an awareness of their health patterns.

Over time, it is likely that the use of big data will adapt further to fully utilise the power of precision medicine.

Challenge: fast adaptation with no framework

Healthcare regulators are struggling to keep up with digital transformation in the industry, which means that there is no standard regulatory framework in place.

For example, if a digital health solution constitutes a medical device under the Medical Devices Regulation (and any equivalent laws), there are strict rules on software qualification and classification.

Reimbursement for technologies (whether through private insurers or public funds) is another area that is still undefined.

The EU is looking torevamp guidelines on the reimbursement of digital health technologies, identifying pathways to facilitate reimbursement at national and EU levels.

In other words, there are not only regulatory and legal restrictions, but even ethical restrictions to contend with when developing a solid framework for compliance in digital health.

Opportunity: blockchain as a solution

Whilst blockchain technology may be more strongly associated with the financial industry or cryptocurrency specifically, it is also a huge opportunity for digital healthcare.

The blockchain healthcare market itself is set to reach $890.5m by 2023 and could be an effective tool in preventing data breaches, whilst also being cost-effective and improving the accuracy of medical records.

Unfortunately, though patient data is necessary to advance healthcare, it is also at high risk of being a target for hacking.

Any errors in medical records – duplicates, delays in treatment, misdiagnoses – are also a common risk with medical data as a result of overstretched systems and human error.

Blockchain technology can manage medical records and transactions among patients and healthcare providers, through a decentralised model which can register all information and detect errors/conflicting information.

The result? Information will be more accurate and also more secure.

As locations like the UK start to experiment with blockchain technology for the management of medical records, it is likely that more regions will see the benefits of this technology for healthcare.

The future is promising

As with many areas of life sciences, digital healthcare transformed rapidly during the pandemic and experienced significant investor and industry interest.

Now that this initial interest has worn off and investor attitudes have become more cautious, the true trajectory of digital healthcare is becoming more apparent.

The opportunities for digital are overwhelmingly positive, but the outcome of these opportunities is reliant on how well the industry can address challenges in these early stages.

If healthcare organisations focus on improving their framework and approach to security, privacy, and confidentiality, then digital healthcare will continue to provide even more innovative avenues for patients and society.

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