Today, we’re approaching a new era of healthcare, one experts are calling ‘healthcare 2.0’. This is not a world focused on doctors and hospitals, treatments and cures; instead tech enabled, proactive healthcare management takes centre stage.
Put simply, healthcare 2.0 empowers patients to control their own condition, which subsequently reduces the burden placed on the traditional healthcare sector. It’s a whole new way of looking at caregiving – and it’s just the beginning. The more we push technological boundaries, the further this could advance.
The field of diabetes is a perfect example of Healthcare 2.0. One of the world’s most common conditions, diabetes accounts for an astonishing 12 per cent of global expenditure on healthcare. It is also particularly prevalent here in the MENA region.
The World Diabetes Foundation survey, most recently conducted in 2015, concluded that approximately 35.4 million people in the MENA region live with diabetes. Equating to 9.1 per cent of the adult population, this is above the global average of 8.5 per cent, a figure that has more than doubled since 1980. Saudi Arabia (17.6 per cent) and Kuwait (14.3 per cent) are among the countries with the world’s highest incidences.
The number of diabetes cases is also increasing. According to Colliers International, figures in the MENA region will rise by 110 per cent to 82 million people over the next 25 years. This growth – plus the nature of the condition – make it highly suitable for healthcare 2.0 innovation, such as:
1. Geolocation for dietary support
Our research shows that almost three quarters of diabetics aren’t well informed about what’s ideal to eat when they go out for a meal or order a takeaway. Controlling one’s diet to be diabetes-friendly is relatively easy at home, but can be difficult when dining out. Healthcare 2.0 is looking to solve this by using geolocation to detect the specific restaurant or café someone is stepping into and then sending them healthy recommendations from its menu. Our Spike Diabetes Assistant app, for example, not only predicts when a user is going to eat, but also knows where they are eating. Our system automatically notifies patients of the best diabetes-friendly food items they can order, and issues insulin reminders to inform them when it’s time to take their post-meal medication. The same data can also be used for food deliveries. I predict this kind of functionality will really take off in the next few years.
2. Gesture-based monitoring
The best assistant is one that understands your behaviour, instantly and accurately. Because diet is key to managing a diabetic’s health, when and what a patient eats are important behaviour variables. And both are areas that technology is now looking to enhance.
Health assistants once relied on gathering this data directly from the user. The patient had to enter information manually and, in doing so, it placed a huge burden on them. If they forgot, or weren’t able to accurately obtain the data, then any support they could potentially receive would be less efficient or extensive.
Technology is now on the cusp of doing this for them. We’re exploring how hand and arm gestures can be tracked through wearable devices, such as an Apple Watch, to provide information on when a patient starts and finishes eating. This means more than just distinguishing between whether someone is blowing their nose or smoking a cigarette. It means being able to detect the different hand gestures between eating soup and biting into a sandwich. This technology is exciting, but it’s still in the research and development stages.
3. Instantaneous injections
The next step in diabetes will be to combine two separate technologies into one truly smart solution. These technologies are glucose monitors and auto-injection devices.
The end goal is to have a glucose monitor that not only knows when a diabetic patient needs an insulin injection from assessing their blood sugar levels, but can also automatically administer it, with no human intervention required.
The theory is already there, but I estimate we’re around five years away from it being accurate and efficient enough to truly run without human intervention. Numerous factors need to be built into this solution to achieve that, including knowing the patient’s heart rate, stress levels, food intake and activity patterns. Technology is enabling us to bring all of these pieces of the jigsaw together, and this, for me, will be an incredibly exciting breakthrough when it arrives.
4. Future teams
As well as changing the lives of patients, technology is also changing roles and opportunities for those working in the sector. At Spike, for example, we’re putting together a team that comprises everyone from data scientists and behavioural analysts to computing experts and mobile developers. We are also partnering with medical professionals and institutions; our GITEX presence last year led to a partnership with Dubai’s Kings College Hospital.
Altogether this is quite an innovative mix, it shows how there are new types of careers and new types of companies being created by this technology. The union of technology and healthcare is important for all of our futures, not just those living with the medical condition.
Another related area is the partnering of tech and pharma companies. The big pharmaceutical firms are increasingly interested in this field, rather than just in producing treatment-based drugs. When they work with a proactive ‘healthcare 2.0’ firm, then both parties benefit. The pharma company is able to understand its customers better, and startups and tech pioneers are able to reach significantly more people. In the diabetes sector, we’ve recently seen this trend coming to fruition with the acquisition of MySugr by Roche.
5. Complete convergence
An important moment will be when all health technologies are able to talk to one another. I already mentioned how gaining the complete holistic picture is necessary for an area such as automatic injections, but this goes beyond just diabetes.
There are now numerous tech-based services, from step counters to heart rate monitors, sleep trackers and stress monitors. In the near future, we will see more advanced sensors emerge and develop, as well as ways to collect medical data. Converging all of these with pioneering technologies that proactively manage medical conditions like diabetes is then an incredible opportunity for society.
It will enable individuals to create a full picture of their health and wellbeing, and it will enable people with health conditions to focus more on prevention and management than on treatment. It will create a new world, markedly different from the old one where people were ‘ill’ and the medical profession was all about ‘treating’ them. In financial terms, this could change healthcare for the better. In humanitarian terms, it will help improve and protect lives, and help contribute to a healthier happier world.
6. Blue sky thinking
Looking much further into the future, no one knows exactly what role technology will play in caregiving, but we can predict the direction it will take. I believe that one day, robots will conduct initial patient assessments to detect general conditions and diseases. I also see robotic technology advancing so that doctors can ‘discuss’ probabilities with robots, before the robots carry out some of the standard procedures involved in surgery – under human supervision, of course.
Education and training will evolve, too. Alongside traditional medicine, I can foresee new doctoral majors being created by universities that are heavily vestedin the combination of medicine and technology. But perhaps most exciting of all is how all of the data being collected today may, in 30 to 40 years’ time, enable us to create our own bodily organs that will adapt and function like regular organs in a human body. That could usher in an era where humanity will be able to prosper in new ways, living longer and healthier lives with much less chronic disease.
Ziad Alame is the winner of the 2018 GITEX Future Stars’ Supernova Challenge, a pitch-style competition held at Dubai World Trade Centre. The Supernova Challenge awards innovative startups across a number of sectors, age groups and geographical regions, and is judged by a jury of investors, corporate heads and established entrepreneurs.