Patient access to digital technologies will drive health innovation in four key areas over the next decade, a report has found.

Artificial intelligence (AI) diagnostics; personalised medicine; nano-tracking and targeting; and virtual relief, will be at the forefront of “healthy life solutions”, according to The Future Laboratory’s ‘Consumer Health Futures’ report.

Unprecedented access to innovations such as smart devices, AI, smartphone and wearables is “empowering” consumers and enabling them to better manage their own health.

The number of people using apps to track health data has more than doubled since March 2014, according to Deloitte’s 2018 health care consumer survey.

“As wearables become increasingly sophisticated through the addition of AI, consumers will be able to create eco-systems of connected devices, enabling access to hyper-specific personal data on demand,” the report said.

“The power is in the data not the devices – it will enable people to self-diagnose and manage their conditions remotely, placing digital citizens in full control of their own health.”

Artificial Intelligence:

AI is already being used in healthcare settings, with the likes of Babylon Health’s triaging app and the British Heart Foundation’s research into predicting heart disease.

Algorithms will soon become more “predictive” in nature as they are able to access a person’s vital measurements in real-time, including heart and respiratory rate, as well as hydration, blood pressure and blood sugar levels, according to the report.

Dr Bertalan Meskó, director of The Medical Futurist Institute and contributor to the report, said: “‘Healthcare should be invisible and preventative, focusing on living a longer and healthier life, not just catching diseases early when they are already present.

“AI is the key technology that can help realise this future.”

Personalised medicine:

People’s desire to self-diagnose and track their data points towards a “future of personalised healthcare”.

Engineers at Rutgers University have already developed a microchip designed to be integrated into personal devices to analyse sweat for different biomarkers and signs of ill health.

According to Digital Health Futurist Maneesh Juneja the trend will be taken even further with the emergence of genomics and 3D printing.

“If you can sequence your genome and understand your genes, then the drug, dose and formation that works exactly for you can be identified, ensuring you’re prescribed the right drug at the right time at the right dose, with the right treatment regime,” he said.

“Imagine a future in which you get a personalised prescription that you can download, and the drug gets printed in a unique quantity, shape and dosage that’s tailored to your body.”

Nano-tracking and targeting:

Ingestible digital medicines are likely to be widely adopted in the next two decade, the report found.

Smart pills, modified to include sensors made from naturally occurring materials, will be able to monitor things such as stomach acid and body temperature, notifying patients and healthcare professionals if action needs to be taken.

Dr Meskó said: “Wearable, ingestible and digestible sensors stand to provide access to real-time, high-fidelity data on individuals, helping anyone understand their health.

“Even more importantly, this understanding has been shown to fuel behavioural change.”

Jelena Janjic, associate professor of pharmacology at Duquesne University, is using nanotechnology to target the immune system by inserting tiny amounts of over-the-counter pain medication into minute carriers called nanoparticles.

They are then injected into a patient’s own immune cells, which would travel through the body to places where there is inflammation to relieve pain.

Bioelectronics is also likely to change the course of health innovation, the report noted. Devices are already proving effective in reducing pain for people with lupus.

Virtual relief:

Virtual reality will offer a “key means” of pain relief in the next decade, it was said.

Several studies and products are already proving effective in the field, including BreatheVR which lets users see their breathing represented by leaves rising and falling in a calming meadow.

“Studies have shown that VR can reduce pain in a quantifiable way, but currently only when medical professionals act as guides for patients while using such a new technology,” Dr Meskó.

“When a burn victim can fly though snowy mountains in VR, for example, they objectively feel better, and pain is reduced.”