How Healthcare Is Set to Evolve in the 2020s

A close up of a hand wearing a smart watch

The advancements that have been made in healthcare during the 21st century so far are simply astounding. In the last 10 years alone, we have made immense progress in the treatment of HIV, developed new ways of curing cancer patients, and created bionic limbs that are far superior to anything seen before.


So, as the decade draws to a close and a new one emerges, it is exciting to look forward to what the future may hold for medical technology. Of course, experts have varied and differing opinions on the matter, but there are some developments that have been generally accepted as plausible – if not likely – and here they are… 


Artificial intelligence will play a larger role

At present, attitudes towards AI in healthcare seem rather mixed. 


In 2018, a survey of 200 U.S. healthcare decision-makers conducted by Intel found that only a little over half (54%) of respondents believed that AI would be adopted to a significant degree within the next five years. However, 37% of them were already using AI in some capacity at the time of the survey – though most of them to a fairly minor extent.


Still, the overall optimism for AI’s impact was evident. The vast majority of people – 91% – believed that AI technology will provide helpful predictive analytics for early detection and intervention of medical problems, while 88% thought it would improve care and 83% hoped it will improve the accuracy of diagnoses.


But, of course, the technology will come at a price.


A similar survey of 500 healthcare executives found that most believed investing in AI could be very costly at first, with outgoings averaging at around $30million per organisation. However, 38% of employers believe they would see a return on their investment within the subsequent four years. What’s more, even despite the massive up-front costs, 94% of survey respondents believed that AI and other similar technologies are the way to ensure that healthcare is affordable and accessible for everyone.


Wearable tech will save lives

Over the past decade, wearable tech has boomed. Just about everybody has some form of smartwatch or fitness tracker now, to the extent that not having one is somehow more surprising.


During the 2020s, we will likely see this trend evolve further – albeit in a way that focuses more on the health of the wearer. Already we have seen a glimpse of this through the CTRL-kit, “a non-invasive neural interface platform that lets developers reimagine the relationship between humans and machines with new, intuitive control schemes.”


The CTRL-kit uses differential electromyography, or EMG, to read signals sent from the brain. Already, these signals can be used to move and control virtual limbs – meaning that, in the near future, they could be used to make artificial limbs more functional for those who need them.


In other ways, too, wearable tech will reshape the way we think about healthcare. We will have devices that constantly monitor our vital signs and check for irregularities or potential problems. We will have accessories that feed information directly to our doctors, or to an AI equivalent – accessories that can tell us something is wrong before we even notice it.


Wearable tech will put our health in our own hands, and allow us to have a more intuitive understanding of our bodies.


3D printed biological materials will come into use

Artificially created organs have been around for some time now, but none have quite been good enough to act as replacements for natural ones. However, in recent years, scientists have made a lot of progress in the field.


This year, the first functioning human pancreas was 3D printed – and it is expected that ones viable for transplant to be available within the next five years. 


“What my team and I are interested in, is to have a pancreas ready to cure diabetes, not to repair the native organ,” explained Michal Wszola, the man behind the research. “In the organ we bioprinted, we can place one million pancreatic islets, which is already sufficient to cure diabetes.”


Meanwhile, a team from Kyungpook National University School of Medicine in South Korea successfully 3D printed an artificial cornea. Like the pancreas, it has not been confirmed viable for a human recipient – but the technology is there for it to function in the same way as a biologically grown body part.


The implications for these advancements are huge. No longer will people have to rely on human donors for organ replacements, wait times for vital transplants will be slashed, and life-saving materials can be produced on demand


Perhaps the 2020s are an optimistic timeline for use of this technology to be widespread, but we can hope to see the dawn of it, at least.


‘Smart’ therapies will utilise tech we already have

Just as wearable tech is already in widespread use, other gadgets we currently take for granted may transform healthcare. 


“By and large, many healthcare solutions lack meaning. They are not smart,” says Kal Patel, the president of BrightInsight, a company that provides biopharma and medical technology internet platforms. “The data from them is either not collected at all or it is collected, and it stays in some type of local environment which inherently limits the value you can derive from that.”


In the 2020s, however, we can expect to see medical devices that are connected to smart technologies: insulin pens that track how much the patient needs/has used, or pills that come in smart packaging and send reminders when they need to be taken.


Not only will that technology directly help patients, it will also provide data that can be analysed by AI to further improve medical aids. 


“Most of that technology is already there, so in the next five to 10 years it’s about unlocking that data. Once you can unlock that data, we will really be able to see progress using artificial intelligence and machine learning within those data sets,” Patel says.


In turn, we will see advancements in how people take responsibility for their own health. After all, if people are more aware of what they need or how their body is being affected by certain treatments or medications in real time, they are more likely to pay closer attention to it.


Many life-threatening diseases will become manageable

Unfortunately, we will never be at a point where we can say that fatal diseases such as cancer or heart disease will definitely be eradicated, but we are progressing in ways that indicate we could get much better at managing them over the next 10 years.


Currently, around 30% of all deaths worldwide can be attributed to cardiovascular disease. In the UK alone, approximately 42,000 people under the age of 75 die from it every year. However, thanks to increasing research into genetic risk factors, preventative approaches, and alternative drug therapies, the likelihood of heart disease becoming more preventable (if not manageable) is increasing. 


“Regenerative medicine will continue to be a very important area of research,” says Prof. Metin Avkiran, associate medical director at the British Heart Foundation. “For example, we could reprogramme some cells to perform roles that differ from their original purpose. Cells that created scar tissue in the damaged heart could be changed so they make the patient’s heart pump properly again, vastly improving quality of life and longevity.”


Similarly problematic illnesses such as lung cancer and asthma are also likely to become more treatable.


“We’re going to see long-term control over diseases that we thought were totally untreatable, such as some lung cancers and mesothelioma, a cancer caused by exposure to asbestos,” says Prof. John Moore-Gillon, honorary medical adviser for the British Lung Foundation. “This will be by immunotherapy (using the patient’s own immune system to fight off a disease) rather than relying on radiotherapy, chemotherapy or surgery.”


Delivery systems for medical and biological supplies will change

It goes without saying that courier systems for medical and biological materials are of the utmost importance, especially for items (such as human organs) that are only viable for a limited amount of time. In recent history, then, we have relied on the best and fastest technology available to get materials from A to B.


Now, however, we have another option: drones.


Since March of this year, UPS has been trialling using autonomous drones as delivery systems for “critical medical samples including blood or tissue”. However, they were only being used to move materials between two hospitals that were 150 yards apart from one another.


“Our drone airline is the first to receive full Part 135 certification from the Federal Aviation Administration, and we’re flying fast toward new innovations and great customer experiences,” UPS reports. “We’re the first to fly commercial drone deliveries outside the visual line of sight⁠—and that opens up a whole new world of speed, convenience, safety, and better patient outcomes.”


In the 2020s, methods like this will become more broadly used to transport goods and materials (not just in the medical industry, of course), and will hopefully speed up the movement of vital items.


As all these advancements happen around us, though, we need to be prepared to grow with them.


“What really is going to be needed in the future is not just the breakthroughs in technology, but breakthroughs in creative thinking and the ability of leaders to think differently when redeveloping their processes to leverage the power of the technologies rather than trying to insert these new technologies into a framework,” says Tom Lawry, director of worldwide health for Microsoft.


We need to think outside the box with the technology we already have, and find room for growth and improvement where we might not have thought it was possible before. The 2020s will no doubt bring incredible changes that we are not expecting; we just need to be prepared to change with it.


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