Technology at the service of humanity, not the other way around

On August 19 2019, I was interviewed by Lisbon newspaper Diario de Noticias about exponential technologies and how it will impact healthcare in the digital age. This is a transcript of that interview, translated into English from the original Portuguese.

“It is necessary to understand how to use technology at the service of humanity, not the other way around”

In an interview with Rudy de Waele, co-founder of Human Works Design, it was quite clear that we are moving towards an era where technology and health are two inseparable worlds.

How are exponential technologies affecting health systems?

Some of the greatest advances and innovations in exponential technologies will emerge in the health sector over the next ten years. We are about to enter an extremely exciting period. We will be able to help millions of people with the early detection of diseases, using precision medicine and more personalized and preventive medicine.

Examples of exponential technologies include Digitisation, Robotics, the Internet of Things, Genetics, Nanotechnology, Blockchain, Neuroscience and Quantum Computing, including Artificial Intelligence (AI), Deep Learning and Additive Manufacturing (3D Printing).

3D printing, combined with huge advances in materials science, is an agent of change in medicine. Custom body parts will increasingly become printable. AI will play a very important role in diagnosing diseases at very early stages or even before they occur. Digitisation will transform diagnostic medicine, and move physician-based performance and results toward more defined and predictable results.

Nanotechnology already makes it possible to detect whether a patient has lung cancer by blowing into a nanodevice. Soon, urine tests will be able to detect cancer. There are smartphone apps that can diagnose STDs (Sexually Transmitted Diseases). Chatbots can now assist with quality mental health care. But the most important thing in the coming years will be disease prevention through technologies, such as genetic analysis, artificial intelligence and constant monitoring tools – all of which will be available on everyday devices.

Blockchain technology will be able to solve the problem of sharing health data. Existing start-ups aim to create a platform where different health agents (doctors, hospitals, laboratories, pharmacists and insurance companies) can request permission to access and interact with medical records. Each interaction is auditable, transparent and secure and will be recorded as a transaction in a distributed register. The project will guarantee privacy issues, as it is built on an architecture based on permission, with several levels of access. Therefore, patients will be able to control who can see their records, the level of access and for how long.

“Currently, we can monitor our health and personal habits through various applications. Measuring the data means that we can improve our bad habits and track our progress in the programs we use.”

Is Portugal aware of the implications that the digital age has on health? And will you know how to take advantage of this digital age?

I need to deepen my knowledge of the Portuguese health ecosystem to better understand the situation in Portugal with regard to innovation in digital health. In my view, most EU countries are well aware of current technological progress and innovations in this area. Some countries lead innovation in Health Systems, just think about the latest advances by Philips (Netherlands) and Siemens (Germany). What all organisations need to understand is how to work with open innovation methods, in order to connect with the outside world to explore new models and create a more solid ecosystem of potential partners and collaborators.

How can technology help society to lead a healthier lifestyle?

Currently, we can monitor our health and personal habits through various applications. Measuring the data means that we can improve our bad habits and track our progress in the programs we use, making us healthier. We can control the various variables and doctors can use the data to provide remote advice regarding medication and therapeutic care.

Ada, for example, is a virtual health assistant who performs a sophisticated symptom assessment to create a detailed picture of your health. If you choose to share your information with your doctor, Ada will act as an effective pre-medical assessment, which the doctor can validate before making known the various treatment options.

In Genetics, based on our understanding of genomes, we know that some drugs are more effective for some populations than for others. When we further sub-segment these populations, we eventually reach a market where we know exactly how to treat a disease. We could reach a point where we can predict and prevent future illnesses. Genomic testing is fast becoming another test tool to be applied on an outpatient basis.

Basically, the entire sector is focused on faster response times, so that doctors spend more time treating patients than with administrative tasks, reducing the burden on doctors.

What innovations in exponential technologies affect the health sector?

Mobile phones will have voice recognition capabilities while the person is talking on the phone, allowing you to diagnose if the person has a problem. The German company, Peak Profiling, is using voice analysis to diagnose Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in children, with over 90% accuracy in identifying previously diagnosed children based on speech alone.

Parkinson’s Voice Initiative is changing costly clinic analysis, using machine learning software to analyse 30-second voice recordings, to detect the disease with 98.6% accuracy for participants.

Hospitals and healthcare systems are facing an inevitable force to innovate. All patients are also customers and are becoming much more selective how they purchase health services, where they are treated, and who or what locations provide the best service. It is here that individuals are also, as never before, shaping the healthcare business. This is healthcare in the Age of the Internet and Social Networks, so users compare the available offers to meet their health needs.

“Healthcare and medical organisations that provide the best digital and physical experiences combined will benefit.”

How are health technologies changing? And how do these changes affect patients? What about health professionals?

Monitoring and diagnosis via smartphones will be complementary to doctors, both in areas with a sophisticated health infrastructure and in areas of low income and a high degree of disease. Plus, smartphones could lead to the much-sought-after era of personalised medicine becoming a reality, through the accurate measurement of our health indicators on a constant basis.

Combine this abundance of health data (a huge dataset from monitoring our sleep, exercise, nutrition, genomic information and organ function indicators) with powerful data analysis and we have a recipe for knowledge that will help patients and doctors find better solutions together.

The patient experience will become increasingly important for patients and clients, as they will have access to a lot of data. Healthcare and medical organisations that provide the best digital and physical experiences combined will benefit.

In your most recent book, Shift 2020 – How Technology Will Impact Our Future, you talk about the influence that technologies such as IoT, Genetics, Robotics and AI, will have in everyday life. Will the health industry, in particular, be prepared?

The ability to innovate is important for everyone interested in the health field. As exponential technologies advance, they are likely to either collide or come together to create disruptive opportunities for both traditional players and newcomers.

All industries will need to adapt to the changes brought about by these new technologies. It’s not just about speed, it’s also about focusing on the quality of improvements and innovations.

Many business leaders say they do not have time to focus on future developments, but it is essential to know what is happening and how they will position the organisation or company once these changes take hold in the future.

What does it mean to be “at the forefront” in the area of ​​digital health?

It is important to have an open mind and to follow the advances of exponential technologies in the health sector. It is also crucial to experiment with – and establish partnerships with – health start-ups, and/or bring health entrepreneurs to your organization. It is also essential to provide training to employees and teams so they can keep up with current developments.

What do you think the future holds for healthcare in Portugal and what are the next steps to embrace that future in the most positive way?

The main objective is to keep our citizens and societies healthy. Prevention and maintenance of health will become increasingly important and popular. All of us, professionals and citizens, can have a personal and positive impact in this area. We must not forget to connect with our human values ​​and to dream, build and create a healthy society and communities. It is necessary to understand how to use technology in the service of humanity and not the other way around.

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