The future of medtech goes beyond Microsoft’s acquisition of Nuance, but, as Giacomo Lee finds out, AI will play a massive role in the future of the intersection of healthcare and technology – and it’s not the only innovative power in this space.
If one story gave a clue to the future of medtech in 2021, a likely contender would be Microsoft’s acquisition of Nuance Communications for $19.7bn last April.
Nuance is a UK based speech-recognition company best known for having provided the speech recognition engine that powers Siri, the smart assistant that talks to Apple customers around the world. The company, however, mostly makes its money through enterprise artificial intelligence (AI) tools that transcribe doctors’ notes, along with customer service calls and voicemails.
Last month saw the lucrative deal hit a stumbling block in Nuance’s home country, with the launch of an antitrust investigation by the UK Competition and Markets Authority (CMA). But as the year drew to a close, the European Commission (EC) approved the acquisition, giving Microsoft permission to increase its presence in the healthcare sector. It's likely the UK will give the Redmond-headquartered giant the green light in 2022.
“Physicians, nurses and everyone involved not having to take manual notes allows them to treat more patients and spend more time on care,” says GlobalData analyst David Brown, commenting on the Nuance deal.
Brown, who calls Microsoft “the big monster that moved into the clinical side of the space”, believes the Nuance acquisition will “greatly bolster Big Tech’s position in provider-based conversational AI with cloud capabilities.”
GlobalData forecasts in a recent report on AI in healthcare that the market for AI platforms for the entire health industry will reach $4.3bn in three years’ time. That’s 8.2% of the $52bn market total for AI platforms forecast for 2024.
This is just one prediction from the leading analytics firm; as the Verdict network discovers, there is plenty more to expect from medtech and its future beyond the "Monstersoft" in the operating room.
AI in 2022
As GlobalData forecasts in its recent report on Tech, Media, & Telecom Predictions (TMT) for 2022, tech giants will expedite healthcare’s digital transformation.
However, the regulatory pathway for AI in healthtech, particularly for medical devices, is still in the developmental stage. The EU’s plans for additional stringent requirements mean large penalties for non-compliance and may also prevent smaller companies from entering the market.
Following increased interest in AI during the pandemic, in 2022 there will be more visibility on the uses of AI, from shortening drug discovery timelines and enhancing supply chain efficiency, to improving clinical trial design and recruitment.
"AI is a powerful set of tools that can be used to analyse all of the information around a surgery and the operating room – think Google Maps for the human body," as Gabe Jones, co-founder and CEO of computer vision surgical startup Proprio, told Verdict last year.
"However the most ambitious applications of AI in medicine will free up human cognition from the most mundane tasks and enable humans and computers to focus on what each does best.”
The MVP of 5G
Digital transformation has been seen for years as an excellent way to streamline operational models and enhance productivity in healthcare, but the pandemic made the need more pressing.
“In an industry witnessing accelerated innovation, technology developed or adapted for Covid-19 – such as robotics, mobile health, and nanotechnology – will be kept or left behind,” write GlobalData researchers.
Big Tech companies like Microsoft will intensify their efforts to succeed and provide avenues for healthcare entities to rapidly integrate new technologies.
Digital and virtual tools will likely address the demand for better patient care in 2022. Last year the Verdict network reported on the rise of various kinds of virtual therapies. Examples include smart watches and apps which react to biomarkers and companies offering their employees online counselling via Zoom, meditation apps and even virtual reality (VR).
“Pharma companies looking to capitalise on this explosion in innovation have increasingly partnered with smaller healthtech startups to co-develop solutions, building on the startups’ proprietary expertise and combining with pharma’s clinical and disease knowledge,” GlobalData managing analyst Roxanne Balfe tells Verdict.
“Large tech companies coming from a broader perspective simply don’t have the same disease-based or clinical knowledge.”
While usage patterns indicate that the demand for virtual care caused by Covid-19 may have peaked, GlobalData polls suggest that there will be a demand for these services beyond the pandemic. However, it may take on a different form than simply replacing in-person visits to medical venues.
Investment, competition, collaboration and loosening reimbursement policies will continue to drive this patient-centric trend into 2022. But only the development of enabling technologies will allow healthcare to embrace the digitalisation of services.
5G, GlobalData argues, will be fundamental to the provision of emerging technologies such as remote surgery, smart hospitals, robotic surgery and applications for augmented reality (AR).
As we covered last year, 5G is very much the MVP of healthcare’s tech revolution. The technology will likely improve remote patient monitoring systems and advance the medical internet of things (IoT).
It also adds low latency, high density and improved reliability, creating new use cases in both consumer and enterprise markets.
For a glimpse of medtech’s future, it’s worth looking at the emerging tech 5G could help galvanise.
Take AR. With 5G, networks can be virtually sliced to provide a range of different service characteristics for different use cases, and ultra-reliable and low-latency communications (URLLC) will support AR use cases in healthcare.
A recent GlobalData report on digital health solutions in neurology suggests that VR and AR are “well placed as a therapy product for neuropsychological conditions because virtual simulations of the outside world are highly realistic and immersive, as well as being non-invasive and non-pharmacological.”
Simulations offer less time-consuming options in comparison to some pharmacological interventions due to their immersive attributes, making for highly engaging forms of therapy.
Indeed, AR technology already appears in therapies targeting everything from chronic pain management, mental health and addiction, to behavioural conditions and neurorehabilitation.
In general, AR in medical devices is led by smaller vendors specialising in software and apps, according to GlobalData analyst Aliyah Farouk. But big tech players are investing in healthcare and working with the industry’s giants. Roche for example partnered with Samsung’s AR/VR subsidiary Harman in 2020.
“Harman’s collaboration with Roche and Microsoft’s recent purchase of Nuance is reflective of this trend where healthcare companies are increasing their connectivity/digitalization and tech companies are capitalizing on this,” says Farouk.
The robotic future of medtech
Robotics also had a good year in 2021, one sign of which was CMR Surgical’s $600m round last June.
5G-enabled surgical robots allow for smoother remote operation by humans. Early clinical studies have shown that spinal procedures can be conducted remotely on a 5G connection. This may mean patients in more rural areas may one day be able to receive surgery from a remote specialist without the need for extensive travel.
There will be 3.7 million robotic surgical procedures in 2022. For-profit entities like CMR Surgical will drive initial adoption, and early leaders will cause an explosion of adoption in hospitals and public-based healthcare systems. However, high costs will prevent widespread adoption in 2022.
“The next-generation of surgeons is very supportive of surgical robotics and we expect to see much greater adoption of surgical robotics and technology more generally in the future,” as CMR Surgical CEO Per Vegard Nerseth told Verdict last year.
“We know that seven-in-10 surgeons would like to see their surgical robotics use increase, and the increased presence of virtual training technologies – such as our virtual trainer – as well as the integration of robotic systems into more and more hospitals and surgical training programs, will naturally allow this to happen through increased awareness and exposure.”
A GlobalData macro theme in medtech for 2022 is smart hospitals, and here too 5G has its role.
The smart hospitals of the future envisioned by KT Corporation and Samsung Medical Center in South Korea would have 5G-connected cameras to allow high-quality video and audio streams of the operating theatre to be shared to other locations, improving the education of resident physicians.
Additionally, these hospitals would have an internal 5G network, allowing large data files, such as those from diagnostic imaging machines, to be transferred to different departments.
Smart hospitals may also allow patients to have 5G-enabled on-body health monitoring sensors which can allow physicians access to their real-time health metric data without being physically present. This allows staff to react faster to any changes and make better informed decisions regarding treatments.
5G means smart, speedier healthcare. And it has a part to play in public health, too.
According to GlobalData’s TMT predictions report, cities will need to be resilient to future potential pandemics.
There is no shortage of data, and we need to harness the power of this information to provide a more direct path through diagnosis and treatment.
As such, smart city technology that focuses on healthcare monitoring is forecast to grow at a CAGR of 8% between 2021 and 2025, reaching a value of $16.6bn.
The pandemic has demonstrated the value of digital platforms capable of tracking infection. For example, Chicago’s use of the Blue Dot health data platform provided an early indication of the Covid-19 pandemic that pre-empted the initial warning from the World Health Organization. Smart building technologies have found new applications as cities reopen, with sensor networks regulating ventilation or measuring occupancy.
As a result, spending on smart building technology is expected to hit $40.6bn by 2025. Being low cost, low power and wireless, 5G is potentially a huge enabler of pervasive IoT.
In other words, your health will be monitored not just as you frequent smart hospital wards, but also as you take your next stroll around the smart city.
“What’s important is that systems are talking to each other,” as Kees Wesdorp, CEO of Precision Diagnosis part at Philips, told Verdict last year. “There is no shortage of data, and we need to harness the power of this information to provide a more direct path through diagnosis and treatment.
“We can do this by combining the power of imaging, monitoring, laboratory, genomics and longitudinal data with insights from artificial intelligence that puts the patient at the centre. This will drive the right care, in the right sequence, at the right time.”
Main image credit: sh22 / Getty Images
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