Digital Health Trends 2022

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(Digital) health needs leaders with vision, med-tech big tech with empathy, values and responsibility.

Healthcare systems recovery and accelerated digital transformation after the COVID-19 pandemic, cross-border projects initiated by the European Commission, the rise of digital therapeutics and strengthening digital health governance—these issues will dominate in 2022.

At a glance:

  • Digitalization drives social transformation in healthcare
  • Innovation is at the forefront of health policy around the world
  • AI and digitalization needs better governance
  • European Union’s mega digital projects accelerate local initiatives
  • Value- and evidence-based medicine is finally feasible but remain reglected
  • Digital therapeutics (DTx) can become new effective drugs, but we need a new framework for healthcare systems to enable health outcomes measurement and support digital literacy
  • Digital healthcare has blended with healthcare—it is now difficult to consider them separately
  • The digital disruption shouldn’t be considered a tsunami. It’s invisible but life-changing, impacting our living environment.

The year 2021 was the second in a row to have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. And there is no end in sight yet. Digital health is still developing dynamically: the number of telehealth services remains stable high, digital health startups have got record-breaking funding, and healthcare facilities invest in IT infrastructure like never before. Access to reliable data for pandemic surveillance and disease prevention purposes has been on the top of the global agenda since World Health Organization opened its Hub for Pandemic and Epidemic Intelligence. Last but not least, millions of patients worldwide have installed coronavirus tracking apps and used telehealth services.

COVID-19 has also revealed significant shortcomings in the prediction, detection, assessment and response to the epidemic outbreaks—and this despite the numerous medical registers and organizations established to protect humanity from pandemic outbreaks, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), its European equivalent (ECDC) or the WHO with a budget of 5,84 billion USD for 2020-2021. It became even more apparent that we have a lot of data, but most are siloed or of low quality. In other words: we are data-rich but analysis poor.

There have also been unexpected disruptions. Shortages of semi-conductors, resulting from disturbances in the supply chain and the increased demand after the pandemic, led to delays in executing orders for electronic equipment, especially in the automotive industry. Pandemic exposed some concerning issues: the gap between science and politics (if politicians follow scientists, the COVID-19 pandemic could be probably already defeated), misinformation on the internet and in social media, putting particular state interests above equity in healthcare (COVID-19 vaccine hoarding by wealthy countries), monopolies of big tech companies. Finally, health systems will have to rethink “democracy of health,” how to care about people who don’t trust the carers and governments (read: anti-vaxxers, science skepticism or anti-medical data movements coming soon).

Let’s see what’s ahead of us in 2022—probably a year of growth for the digital health sector.

French technological transformation with a social touch

“Recovery, power, belonging” is the motto of the French presidency of the Council of the EU in the first half of 2022. The pillars are supposed to be digital transformation, climate crisis, and social rights. France has an appetite for becoming the leader in digital health and takes that priority seriously by investing EUR 650 million, as Health Minister Olivier Véran has announced in October 2021.

The digital health strategy includes preventive medicine, telehealth appointments, surgical robotics, and medical devices based on artificial intelligence. This approach may also have an impact on health goals during the presidency of the Council of the European Union. In 2022, the French government plans to publish a digital health barometer to monitor the sector’s development and attractiveness.

Mega EU projects start stimulating local investments and regional initiatives

The establishment of European Data Spaces, including the European Health Data Space (EHDS), is a priority for the European Commission for 2019–2025. The year 2022 is at the halfway point to the EHDS—it is time to get specific. The project aims to strengthen health data exchange between different European stakeholders and facilitate access to data for research, health policy, and innovation development purposes. Local hubs that will carry out projects under the EHDS are growing. Investments in the EHDS will be supported by the EU4Health program 2021-2027, with a budget of EUR 5.3 billion. In November, European Commission announced to invest nearly 2 billion EUR within the Digital Europe Programme to accelerate the digital transition.

HERA as a new opening for science

Another key priority of the European Commission for the coming year was easy o spot during Ursula von der Leyen’s speech at the World Health Summit organized at the end of October 2021. The President of the European Commission focused mainly on a project known by the acronym HERA. Health Environment Research Agenda For Europe is intended to strengthen the role of science and research in political strategies (budget: over EUR 3 billion).

Twenty-four partners from the EU are working on a medium-term European health and environment research program for 2020–2030. The result will include, for example, identifying research and political needs, as well as priorities related to the environment and health care, and are to be carried out in the subsequent years.

Digital therapeutics (DTx) as drugs in smartphones

How can you browse through 400,000 health apps to find the right one that is safe for the patient and corresponds to their needs? The answer: Not by following unreliable reviews in apps stores or by using Google search. Patients need finally reliable navigation on the sea full of digital health solutions.

It is time to separate the high-quality apps approved as medical devices that meet safety criteria and whose health benefits have been proven from the plethora of fitness and wellness tools. So that doctors can recommend them to the patients with no concerns regarding data safety or therapeutic advantages. Germany already took this step in 2019 by introducing apps on prescription DiGA. In October 2021, at HealthTech Innovation Days (HTID) in Paris, President Emmanuel Macron announced that France would copy the German DiGA Fast Track model (health apps assessment model). Others may follow Germany and France—20 countries are interested in adopting DiGA.

Digital health is ripe for grand challenges

A few years ago, there was a thick line between digital health (a trend not yet seen as transformative power) and global health, preventive medicine, health policy, population health. While new technologies were enthusiastically discussed among innovators, they were seen by the academic community as gadgets that propel business and have nothing to do with “serious healthcare.”

The COVID-19 ends the division for “digital health” and “health.” Digital tools helped nations and communities to organize large-scale vaccination programs, trace infection chains, remotely monitor patients, and verify the vaccination status using a system of COVID-19 certification. In addition, telemedicine allowed continuing delivering health services to citizens’ homes. We will never know the exact numbers, but telehealth has saved millions of lives globally.

In 2022, a new digital health narrative will encourage smarter strategies, strengthen cooperation between science, business, and academia, and invest in IT and data infrastructure.

With digital health maturity comes enormous responsibility

The authors of Governing health futures 2030: Growing up in a digital world, a report by the Lancet & Financial Times Commission published on 25 October 2021, have no doubt: Artificial Intelligence, Big Data and automation will shape healthcare in the future. However, for the transformation of healthcare to be beneficial for societies and individuals, it must be based on a few principles: digital equity (which is becoming equivalent to equal access to health services), the adjustment of digital health models to the needs of local communities, and ensure fundamental human rights, such as data privacy.

Experts working on the report emphasize that in order to achieve sustainable digital transformation, we need to include access to technologies and the ability to use them in the social determinants of health. What’s more, digitization needs stronger governance at the national and international levels.

Last call to bridge scientific advances and clinical practice

We must finally apply AI to standardize clinical decision-making, measure treatment outcomes, and help clinicians diagnose and treat patients following current scientific knowledge. Using AI is the only way to put evidence-based medicine into practice and improve patient outcomes. And this is where the pandemic has made us realize the importance of access to information. In 2020, scientists published over 100,000 articles on the coronavirus pandemic.

But, unfortunately, this wave of knowledge was impossible to be navigated by any doctor, leading to a paradox in modern medicine: lifesaving guidelines didn’t reach all clinicians. Similar to bottlenecks in vaccine or drugs distribution that threaten people’s health and lives, information shortages harm patients. We have the tools to improve information flow in healthcare—it is a matter of new priorities and political will.

Innovation as an invisible source of growth for the new life ecosystem

For years, we talked of ” disruptive technologies” or a “tsunami of innovation.” Yes, there were already in the past, are now and will come disruptions making a visible impact. For example, the invention of personal computers, mobile phones or, maybe soon, quantum computing and metaverse. But most technologies are small inventions that are slowly entering our daily lives.

We don’t notice them in the multitude of changes, but they permanently change the ecosystem of life, including the health care landscape. They are like an underground source that provides new impetus for socio-technological progress. The best way to gain a big picture of the scale of tech-driven change, have a look at the 2021 list of life-changing inventions by TIME. It’s an excellent opportunity to reflect and look at the world going through many transformations.

The list of best innovations of 2021 by TIME includes at least 25 digital health-related technologies

Honorary mention

To get feedback from my professional network on the key trends in digital health to be expected in 2022, I made a poll on LinkedIn. Over 350 people joined and shared their opinions! 40% of respondents chose “AI in medicine” as the primary trend in 2022. In addition, 36% indicated “apps on prescription,” 18% —“data reuse” in healthcare.

Here are other trends identified by the voters:

  • remote patients monitoring
  • clinical registries
  • AI-based therapy planners
  • integration of different solutions into a common platform
  • improved patients outcomes
  • patients getting access to their data
  • apps for mental health
  • open electronic medical records

And what’s your opinion? Join the discussion on LinkedIn.

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