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7 health-tech developments to watch in 2021

Medical technology has pushed healthcare in some fascinating directions, changing the way doctors and patients interact and changing the expectations of wellbeing.

As exciting as the developments of the past have been, what they portend for the future can’t help but be even more exciting.

Here are seven health-tech developments to watch in 2021.

1. Telehealth
Telemedicine took a massive–and very necessary–leap forward in popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic.

With instructions to shelter in place and avoid hospital visits in all but the most dire of non-COVID-related conditions, how were patients to consume much-needed medical services?

Telemedicine, which leverages technology like teleconferencing and eCommerce to provide medical services from afar, was the answer for many people.

A study revealed that 71% of Americans had at least considered a telehealth appointment, and over 50% had utilized an appointment since the pandemic broke out. In April of 2020, 43.5% of all Medicare Part 1 appointments were telehealth appointments.

Expect this trend to accelerate as people discover that they don’t have to fill out a clipboard and wait for a perpetually-late doctor every time they need to consume healthcare services. That’s only one reason experts expect the telehealth industry to grow more than sevenfold by 2025.

2. Internet of medical things (IoMT)
The “Internet of Things” (IoT) was said to have come into being when there were more objects (smart home devices, remote locks, biometric security scanners, etc.) connected to the internet than there were people browsing the internet.

The Internet of Medical Things (IoMT) already forms an important subset of the IoT. It includes wearable or implanted biometric monitors, smart thermometers, automated insulin delivery (AID) systems, even “smart pills.”

First approved by the FDA in 2017, smart pills are medications that include tiny transmitting devices to track drug regimen adherence.

Though studies haven’t yet shown if smart pills improve medication adherence, it’s another example of why the IoMT industry is expected to surpass $155.8 billion by 2027 with a CAGR over 27.2%. In other words, IoMT is just getting started.

3. Software as a medical device (SaMD)
Software as a Medical Device (SaMD) is different from IoMT. It refers not to internet-connected devices, but to “medical devices” that are software-based and independent of any particular device.

For example, an app that can be installed on an iPhone, smartwatch, or PC and performs the function of a medical device would qualify as SaMD.

Compare that to “software in a medical device,” which performs medical functions completely dependent on the device in which they are installed — for example, the app that controls the movement of an X-ray machine.

How can an app be a medical device, regardless of what device it is in? It could use built-in microphones to record respiratory or cognitive function.

It could access a device camera to take images for diagnostic purposes. It could use the device’s internal accelerometer to monitor motor function. It could also be the app that interfaces with an IoMT device.

For a deeper understanding of SaMD, this guide from Orthogonal goes into detail.

4. Artificial intelligence (AI)
The use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in medtech is another trend accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Machine learning played a crucial role in vaccine development, one of many reasons the vaccine hunt took less than a year, whereas other vaccines took years to develop.

AI was also used to scan news articles for pandemic hotspots, perform thermal screening for symptomatic carriers, create enhanced facial recognition algorithms that could identify masked persons, eliminate human error in CT scans, and identify subtle disease markers that humans would miss through a detailed analysis of millions of images.

Look for the use of AI in medtech to continue to leap forward as the technology gets better and better.

5. Augmented reality (AR)
Augmented reality (AR) is different from virtual reality (VR) in that it doesn’t replace the sensory input of the real world with the sensory input of a digital world. You still see the real world, but with extra input.

This has many practical implications for the healthcare industry. AR glasses could display information to a surgeon without obstructing his/her view of the patient.

AR apps can be used to project images of a patient’s veins on their body, helping a doctor, nurse, or tech insert IV needles or visualize surgical procedures.

AR in medicine is in its infancy, but stands poised to reinvent how healthcare professionals render advanced care.

6. Virtual reality (VR)
Virtual reality (VR) goes further than AR in completely replacing the sensory input of the outside world with a world of images. Through a VR headset, the real world disappears and a user can visualize an alternate world.

This technology is already showing its usefulness in medtech, giving doctors and medical students a crucial vector to visualize surgeries and practice.

VR has also shown efficacy in pain management and relaxation, with VR users proven during a HITLab experiment to feel less pain and experience less anxiety.

VR is also in development as a treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, phobias, and as an assistive technology for physical therapy.

7. Blockchain
Blockchain, that favorite technology for cryptocurrency enthusiasts, may not seem like an easy breakthrough to marry to medtech, unless you can pay your medical bills with your Bitcoin gains.

But blockchain holds promise for more than just cryptocurrencies. Blockchain is based on a secure digital ledger diffused among many computer servers, making it almost impossible to falsify.

With the telehealth explosion pushing the industry in the direction of online medical records, blockchain is a key candidate technology to standardize those online medical records in a secure, private format that can’t easily be falsified. Blockchain could also be useful in creating “smart contracts” for patient consent and releases.

As breakthrough technologies make headlines, healthcare can always be counted on to push the envelope of what those technologies are capable of. We continue to admire and be grateful for the medtech industry and the ways in which it makes us safer, healthier, and happier.

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