Our existing healthcare systems are in need of an overdue shift in focus, says Simon Pavitt, Chief Operating Officer, London Technology Club. While the compassion, energy and dedication of healthcare workers should never be undervalued, the reality is that the projected future burden on health systems is unsustainable.
Take the most advanced and powerful economy in the Western world as an example. In the US, the cost of chronic diseases is equivalent to one-fifth of its entire economy. In 2016, the financial toll of cardiovascular conditions alone to the US economy was $1.46 trillion. In the same year, 39.8% of the US adult population was considered obese or overweight.1 Despite new treatments and increased knowledge, healthcare systems in the most advanced economies continue to be strained.
In this context, COVID-19 was a wakeup call for the world. Exposing weaknesses across health systems, it highlighted how we – as a society – must better understand how to prevent against different types of chronic diseases. Indeed, it is a shocking reality that each year millions of people die from preventable illnesses. By 2030, the proportion of total global deaths due to chronic diseases is expected to increase to 70%. Yet up to 80% of chronic diseases can be avoided.2
Shifting the focus to prevention
At the London Technology Club, we are interested in how nascent health technologies can enable a culture of prevention when it comes to combatting illness and disease. We believe that the advent of emerging technologies can support three pillars of prevention: health testing, health monitoring and the harnessing of data.
Together, these three factors can help us better predict and prevent against illness.
Firstly, technological advancements in testing can help people to better understand what health conditions they are genetically more likely to struggle with.
Knowing about a family history of disease can motivate people to take steps that lower their chances of developing it. If someone is at higher risk of developing a disease – such as cancer or heart disease – then they can be offered more frequent monitoring and earlier intervention, and be supported to change their behaviours.
The testing of genetics and DNA has a fundamental part to play here, and we have already come a long way. While the first patent on a home pregnancy test was granted back in 1969, Covid-19 and the widespread use of lateral flow home test kits has embedded a culture of self-testing that can help prevent against illness.
We are beginning to normalise the diagnosis of health issues at home and technology will only fuel this trend further. The scientific cavalry continues to advance, and breakthroughs are being made all of the time. Innovative testing tools such as LetsGetChecked – a health insights platform – allow consumers to access laboratory testing and clinical support services at home. They provide a menu of more than 30 at-home tests, for areas such as cortisol, cholesterol, vitamin D, iron, omega, thyroid, and sexual health.
Since 2015, LetsGetChecked has administered more than 2.5 million tests, detecting more than 135,000 infections across 28 markets to help prevent illnesses from worsening. This type of innovative tech ushers in a wave of immediacy and access when it comes to healthcare testing. It shows the scalability of at-home diagnostics, and that this approach is a long-term alternative to traditional in-person medical visits. Indeed, direct testing is one step towards people taking more control of their health, looking at their predispositions with the aim of understanding themselves more in order to stay healthier for longer.
Personalised monitoring through the use of pioneering tech can help people to see the impact of their risk behaviours (e.g. smoking, poor diet, lack of sleep, gut health). This information can encourage positive lifestyle changes that prevent health issues from developing.
Good progress is being made here: the adoption of wearables – devices that can be worn on the body to monitor health data – surged in 2020 and 2021. According to the Stanford Centre for Digital Health, ownership of wearables has accelerated. In 2015 they were used by 17% of the US population, rising to 43% in 2020.3 This uptake is reflected in the size of the global wearable technology market, which grew from $40.65 billion in 2020 to $47.89 billion in 2021 – and is projected to grow to $118.16 billion by 2028.4 More than 320 million consumer wearables are expected to be shipped in 2022 alone, around 50% of which will be from Apple.
Wearables can help us to monitor our lifestyle, make better choices and adopt healthy behaviours. For example, they can help users to meet their sleep goals, monitor hear rate variability, check blood oxygen levels, measure energy levels and encourage hand washing. Whether it is a relatively simple Fitbit tracker or a high-performance WHOOP, these devices transmit information in real time – allowing us to assess data in the moment. They allow us to set health goals and track our progress towards them.
Ultimately, this level of monitoring is a fundamental part in the shift from reactive to preventative health. It means that we can centre healthcare on the individual; identifying and managing issues early to help reduce the long-term burden on the wider healthcare system.
Monitoring is the second step towards people taking more control of their health, with people able to track their biomarkers to receive early warning signs that encourage earlier intervention and positive behavioural change.
Approximately 30% of the world’s total data volume is generated by the healthcare industry, and data management is becoming a crucial aspect of healthcare that can fuel a transformation in preventative health. 5
The data generated from the likes of DNA testing and wearables is creating what is referred to as an individual’s ‘dataome’. With the proliferation of mobile devices, wearables, trackers, sensors, and testing kits comes the expanded ability to track and gain access to increased consumer data. In 2020, the average number of digital device interactions per person reached 1,400 per day. By 2025, that figure could reach 5,000 per day.6 Drawing on this cleaner, richer, more readily accessible data, advanced technologies like AI and machine learning can accelerate healthcare innovation that can help people to gain greater insight into their own health needs.
AI’s advancements will undoubtedly change preventative health. It is accelerating our capacity to glean important insights from data. For example, Human Digital Twins are transforming the application of health data; they allow a complete picture of health data to be gathered about a person (i.e., blood tests, imaging data etc.). This ‘digital twin’ enables more frequent monitoring and earlier intervention to current and future medical problems.
These digital representations of humans as a very complex physical, biochemical and electrical creature are already helping with the simulation of drugs and can enter mainstream healthcare. Initially something harnessed by professional athletes, they also assess the bones and muscle parameters and simulates running, walking and other activities.
Empowering people to take control of their health
Technology holds the key to enabling people to take control of their healthcare and reduce the need for sick care. It can empower them to understand their predispositions and to monitor their lifestyles. The ever-increasing amount of health data will hasten medical innovation too.
The hope is that the pandemic has accelerated an acceptance that people can, and must, take more control of their own health to stay well for longer. Clearly, there are signs that people are more willing to embrace digital health tools that aid testing and monitoring – but a further shift to a prevention mindset is still needed.
This next phase of progress can be driven by serious, long-term investment in health tech. This can provide technological solutions that shifts consumer attitudes towards a total focus on prevention. Crucially, this can help people to live longer, healthier lives.
1 Milken Institute
2 United Nations
3 CB Insights
4 Grand View Research
5 RBC Capital Markets
6 RB Capital Markets