What new technologies mean for healthcare

Heath tech
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New technologies are changing the face of healthcare, but are they worth the risk?

Technology is beginning to have a transformative impact on healthcare providers.

From self-diagnostic wearables to proton beam therapy, technology is changing how we diagnose and treat people.

The sector’s appetite for such technological improvements comes as little surprise.

Growing and ageing populations, a shortage of medical staff, an increasing need to manage chronic diseases and burgeoning health-care costs leaves the sector desperate for reform.

Looking app

Fitbits, nano technology for monitoring health and diagnostic booths in pharmacies are already having an impact.

Many parts of the healthcare sector may face an uphill struggle securing existing technologies.

The use of smartphone devices for remote diagnosis/consultation, meanwhile, is a particular growth area for many private healthcare providers keen to reduce the strain on over-stretched staff. Similarly, increasingly sophisticated GP algorithms could greatly reduce unnecessary use of A&E by providing accurate early-stage diagnosis.

We can see why companies such as Apple and Google are entering this space with HealthKit and GoogleFit. A future in which iOS or Android apps interact with much of our medicine is not hard to imagine.

The progression of healthcare technology is not without its challenges, however.

The recent NHS cyber-attack suggests that many parts of the healthcare sector face an uphill struggle securing existing technologies. Might introducing new technologies be asking for trouble?

Man and machine

To date, when there have been problems involving new technology in healthcare, it’s tended to not be a fault with the technology itself, but with how it’s been operated – in essence, it’s been human error.

Healthcare risk management could find itself in a constant state of catch up.

The interfacing between people and machines always creates some risk of human error. The more new, complex and multitudinous the technology involved, the greater the risk of human error is likely to be.

For a sector not always lauded for its transparency and ability to learn from failure, an increased risk of human error could pose particular problems.

Staff training will help, but new technology always creates the problem: how can we anticipate all possible losses before they have ever been incurred? Healthcare risk management could find itself in a constant state of catch up – reactively making adjustments only once risks have become apparent through large-scale losses.

The interfacing challenge is not just between people and machines – it’s also between different kinds of machine.

Hospitals often use devices from many different manufacturers. With so many different device manufacturers – all of which may have different standards and communication capabilities – it is difficult to ensure that these devices can ‘talk to each other’. This lack of ‘interoperability’ also adds barriers to healthcare providers’ ability to capture data and ensure the information is accurate.

Weaker links

Greater use of the healthcare technology could also increase healthcare providers’ cyber risks – already an acute problem.

In medically critical situations, would doctors really trust strange-looking data?

For instance, having a medical device connected to home networks, public Wi-Fi or cellular signals and feeding information back to a hospital's network could provide many benefits. It could allow some patients to return home sooner from hospital with a small device to monitor their conditions and recovery. It could also result, however, in hospitals dealing with less secure networks.

Supply chains have sometimes been referred to as the soft underbelly of companies’ cyber security. With so many manufacturers providing so many devices, who’s keeping track of these manufacturers’ cyber security? In terms of cyber security, a healthcare providers’ use of a vendor with inadequate cyber security could be the equivalent of leaving your back door open.

And what about data privacy and security? This is already an acute risk for the healthcare sector.

Google Brain is already analysing medical data to better understand people’s health and the provisions they may need in the future.

But currently there is not much of a standard around how data is captured. The accuracy of data could therefore be difficult to gauge. In medically critical situations, would doctors really trust strange-looking data?

Decision maker

Healthcare providers will need to have staff who are expert in using new technologies and discerning the right meaning from the resultant data. The use of new technologies will also need to be married to ever-vigilant and evolving cyber security.

There is no single technology standard in healthcare. As new technologies are rolled out, a central question for healthcare providers will be: ‘What is the governance?’ Who is qualified to judge the changes in a healthcare provider’s risk profile?

New technologies really could improve healthcare for millions of people; they could also put healthcare providers at greater risk than ever before – imperilling people’s sensitive data in the process. Policy and governance and education will determine how things play out.

 

For more information, please contact Kevin Culliney on:

Kevin.Culliney@uk.lockton.com

+44 (0)20 7933 2692