Photo: The health crisis has launched the digitalization of medical services. Credit: Unplash

By Fernando Roca

“One’s first wealth is their health,” stated American philosopher and essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, in 1860. Nearly two centuries later, his words have gained special importance since the shock felt by humanity as a result of the coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19).

New technologies are playing a relevant role in confronting the problems brought on by the current health emergency. Therefore, though the digitalization of this sector has progressed more slowly than in other industries, the process could accelerate in the coming months. “There will be a greater acceptance of solutions provided by digital health, which will translate directly into greater opportunities,” commented Bayer’s Digital Innovation Manager, Anabel León, in a webinar recently celebrated by Opinno.

Advance to Digital Health

In recent years, the health sector has opted for innovation. In addition to the big companies, the sector contains 42 unicorns (technological companies valued at more than $1 billion prior to going public), according to CB Insights. Its innovative initiatives may be categorized according to the following tendencies:

  • Telemedicine: From remote assistance to chatbots

The use of non-conventional channels in the remote provision of medical care, whether by phone or video call, has intensified during the health crisis. In Spain, companies that already had telematic platforms with which they could offer consults before the crisis, such as Sanitas and Mapfre, have seen how their use has increased, while health centers have had to rapidly and suddenly adapt to the situation.

“I don’t think that solutions like the remote consultation […] will cease to be used, especially after having noticed their advantages, such as the relief they provide for the burden of care,” predicts León. During the pandemic, one of these services’ greatest advantages has been discovered: the possibility of avoiding that patients with contagious illnesses come into contact with other people. Added to this are the savings in travel and the decrease in waiting times.

Everything indicates that the use of this modality will continue to expand in the future: according to a recent report by Cigna, 65% of Spaniards are interested in utilizing telemedicine services. To broaden this use, the director of Opinno Barcelona, Xavier Contijoch, warns that there will are two hurdles that must be overcome: “The first is the reskilling [professional recycling] of the medical force and the second is the acceptance on behalf of the patient insofar as not needing to go to the consultation.” The expert points out the particular challenge of adopting these solutions for the elderly, although the health crisis has led them to become familiar with such solutions.

Some of the most advanced tools available in the telemedicine market already offer pre-diagnosis services via apps. In the case of Spanish start-up, Mediktor, which has reached agreements with national and international healthcare institutions. Its system consists of a chatbot that evaluates the patient’s symptoms and makes a primary diagnosis. thanks to artificial intelligence, which can then be shared with a physician. Unicorn Babylon Health’s operation is similar, with their technology integrated in the National Health Service (NHS) of the United Kingdom.

  • Digital therapies and preventative medicine

Another of the growing trends are the so-called digital therapies, which use new technologies to prevent, control, and treat health problems as well as to complement and even replace the use of medications. Specifically, it is expected that the sector will reach a turnover of $9 billion in 2025.

One of the sectors that has opted for the advancement of digital therapies is the pharmaceutical sector. Novartis, for example, has recently acquired the start-up Amblyotech, which has developed a digital tool to treat patients with amblyopia, also known as lazy eye, thanks to a therapeutic game with 3D glasses. As the report RE-START:10 Post COVID-19 trends prepared by Opinno points out, in the future “we will carry more sensors to monitor our vital signs and avoid health problems, which will strengthen preventive medicine”.

These devices are already gaining popularity. For predicts instance, the intelligent system known as Brainguard predicts symptoms brought on by migraine by analyzing parameters such as body temperature, cardiac rhythm, and blood oxygen levels, all through a patch attached to the skin and an app. Wearables like the Apple Watch incorporate electrocardiograms as precise as those found in hospitals, which ultimately helps prevent cardiovascular diseases.

Photo: Connected devices are playing increasingly relevant roles in the maintenance of health. Credit: Unplash

  • Personalized medicine

Studying the genes of every person allows for the development of pharmaceuticals and treatments that are adapted to a certain group of people, or even a single individual. This is the promise of personalized, or precision, medicine, that opens the doors to treating the most incurable ailments. In fact, hyperpersonalization in the treatment of rare diseases has been recognized as one of the 10 emerging technologies of 2020 by MIT Technology Review.

In the European Union, ERA PerMed is one of the largest consortia promoting research to do with personalized medicine, with participation in 23 countries. The prevention of osteoarthritis, identification of patterns to identify future cases of intestinal cancer, and combined analysis of information to select treatment for patients with lung cancer will be some of the projects that will be developed within this program.

“There will be greater acceptance of solutions provided by digital health”

All of these advances make so that the patient has more power over everything that affects their health. “If this crisis has made something clear, it is that digital health is a cultural change of the first order,” summarized the director of Digital Health and Technology of Ferrer, Gemma Estrada, in Opinno’s cited webinar. Now, “the citizen […] is empowered as a partner in healthcare.

The importance of mental health

Recently, the UN demonstrated that mental health has been gravely affected by the pandemic: 35% of the population has suffered anguish in China, a percentage that reaches 45% in the Unites States. In Spain, according to a study by various universities, 46.7% of the population thinks that their psychological wellbeing has deteriorated during the confinement period.

“This health crisis will function to destigmatize mental health issues,” predicts Contijoch. The growing need  for mental health services helps to consolidate a tendency toward their provision: the digitalization, promoted by numerous start-ups. For example, the app iFeel, which offers psychological assistance online, increased their demand by 70% during the confinement. In the crisis, other apps have seen increased usage, such as Headspace or Calm, that offer meditation or mindfulness services.


Photo: New digital tools will be more and more helpful in getting people to maintain their wellbeing. Credit: Unplash

Digital therapies have also reached this area. One of the most commonly reffered to example is GameChange,a system developed by the National Institute of Health Research of the United Kingdom, which uses virtual reality to help improve the quality of life of patients with psicosis. These virtual environments created to cure mental disorders are also used by Psious, a start-up from Barcelona that has treated 15,000 patients in more than 60 countries.

“This health crisis will function to destigmatize mental health issues”

There are many platforms and applications with the goal of helping individual’s physical and mental wellbeing. All of these present and future trends have as a final objective, take care of that which Emerson considered, and since this pandemic, that which we now all consider to be the first wealth of humans: health.