Apps have proven to be a popular method of identifying and tracking people who...
Apps have proven to be a popular method of identifying and tracking people who may have been in contact with an infected person.
Source: Shutterstock/PST Vector

Medical technology 2020 – a review

Come December, analysts and pundits usually venture predictions as to the trends and technologies that will dominate the upcoming year. Covid-19 gave many of these predictions for 2020 an entirely new spin: while some of the hyped trends turned out to play only bit-parts others became box-office hits in the new normal.

Report: Sascha Keutel

The expansion of telehealth

Telehealth is no new idea – it has been around for well over a decade. Designed to provide care in geographically remote areas, telehealth however assumed a new role in 2020: to protect patients from the coronavirus.

In 2020, remote care and monitoring saw an unprecedented increase. Many observers were surprised how easily these concepts were integrated into daily routine, supported by an array of health apps including features for mental care or for monitoring the quality of sleep or blood glucose levels.

In addition, the acceptance of remote testing increased significantly. Today, many crucial tests can be done from home – thanks also to the fact that the red tape which had previously strangled home testing was cut.

There is no doubt that in the future telehealth will be a pillar of the health service mix since it promises to solve one of the major issues of the health systems: to maintain an adequate level of care despite an ageing population and a shortage of trained staff.

Moreover, the widespread introduction of 5G will further boost telehealth apps. Companies are already developing integrated networks which can analyse patient records, offer medical training and even perform VR-guided remote surgery.

This non-invasive ventilation mask could significantly reduce aerosolization -...
This non-invasive ventilation mask could significantly reduce aerosolization - the production of airborne respiratory droplets that may contain viruses or bacteria - when treating patients with COVID-19.
Source: Lawson Health Research Institute

3D printing goes mainstream

One of the major winners in the healthcare system in 2020 is 3D printing. Lockdown effects on production, transport and supply chains have caused serious shortages of medical devices, consumables and materials. Owners of 3D printers worldwide, from amateur printers to services providers in other industries and users in the healthcare systems, have been churning out innovative solutions to mitigate the bottlenecks in the wake of COVID-19.

Digital versatility and the ability to prototype quickly with 3D printing have moved this technology in the focus. All of a sudden it was possible to manufacture the necessary materials and devices for a wide range of services – on demand, decentralized and in mass production. The additive nature of 3D printing allows for quick product adjustments and for complex designs, be it for PPE and consumables such as nose swabs or for visual aids to emergency and quarantine wards.

Moreover, 3D printing has shown to be a promising way to minimize resource consumption, e.g. masks and filters that are made of recyclable materials.

Esben Østergaard (co-founder of Lifeline Robotics and Universal Robots) takes...
Esben Østergaard (co-founder of Lifeline Robotics and Universal Robots) takes a swab in the World's First Automatic Swab Robot.
Source: University of Southern Denmark

Automation is more than surgical robots

COVID-19 has helped to allay the fear that robots will take over human jobs. In view of the increasing work load of clinical staff and the need to minimize risks for the personnel a number of institutions have looked into ways to use robots for tasks in diagnosis, care and treatment.

Of particular interest in this context are systems to automatically disinfect surfaces or PPE. In order to protect staff from infection, robots were used to take mouth and nose swabs. Automated systems reduced the need for trained staff, enabled standardized comparability of the swabs and increased throughput – after all robots don’t get tired and work efficiently 24/7.

Some labs refitted existing high-throughput robot platforms for COVID-19 diagnostics.

During the pandemic, even social robots gained acceptance as they entertain patients suffering from anxiety and loneliness in hospitals.

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More AI applications

Before 2020, AI was arguably the best known emerging technology in healthcare, particularly in imaging and in robotic applications. Its standing further increased last year since AI is playing a key role in the battle against COVID-19 – not only in diagnostics. AI is used for predictive modelling and for the analysis of patient data to detect early signs of diseases. Analysis, monitoring, follow-up and triage of COVID-patients in hospitals as well as the support of the hospital infrastructure with resource allocation or mental health care via chatbots are further fields of application.

Moreover, AI is used for thermal screening, facial recognition with mask and substance discovery and vaccine development.

Wearables: Revenue over time
Wearables: Revenue over time
Source: IDTechEx Research

Wearable sensors: surge of interest, decline in revenue

Over the past few years, the use of wearables has moved from fitness to healthcare. Today, patients with chronic diseases self-monitor using wearable sensors. The data collected by the sensor is transferred to the physician. Increasingly, sensors are integrated into fabrics for apparel and shoes and monitor power, pressure and strain. These types of applications are expected to boom in the coming years.

COVID-19 led to an explosion of interest in wearable and sensor technologies, particularly for devices used in contact tracing. Nevertheless, due to the general economic situation for 2020 analysts expect a decline in the turnover generated by wearable technologies. Post-pandemic, however, the outlook brightens and analysts expect the industry to return to sustained growth since wearables and sensors will play a crucial role in transforming the current healthcare landscape towards pro-active and personalised care.

Conclusion

In the past, the healthcare industry has tended to resist change. The pandemic, however, triggered a wave of innovations and initiatives in research and development. Technologies and concepts such as telehealth, 3D printing and AI experienced increased acceptance not only from professionals but also from the public at large.

For these technologies and concepts to exert a long-term influence on the healthcare system, all players have to adopt the new solutions quickly and adapt them for the post-pandemic world. Guidelines and regulations regarding liability in the context of AI and robotics have to be developed in order to settle legal and ethical issues.

The same holds true for 3D printing. While the technology has proven its mettle, there are concerns regarding potential risks of using 3D printers in a healthcare environment. In order to maintain confidence in this new technology, technical suitability of new designs and materials has to be ensured and accountability has to be clarified.

Last but not the least, privacy issues have to be solved. While citizens’ contributions to tracing infected persons are laudable and contact tracing is no doubt a helpful technology, the methods used have to meet strict privacy standards. It won’t be possible to introduce digital healthcare concepts without affecting privacy therefore the implementation of new solutions has to safeguard privacy. In order to maintain data security and data safety, technologies such as blockchain have to be improved and regulated.

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