The Irish health system must embrace disruptive technologies

23 February, 2018

Emerging technologies are changing the face of healthcare

For example, PwC global research reveals that the majority of consumers are willing to replace human doctors with AI and robotics.  Accessibility and accuracy are seen as benefits, while trust and the human element are key challenges.

 The research confirms that around the world healthcare is changing and the public is ready to embrace AI and robotics for their healthcare needs. The majority of consumers are willing to receive care from these advanced technologies, which have the potential to transform healthcare delivery to make it better, faster and more accessible for all.

Such emerging technologies currently being used in the health sector in other countries can also play a huge role in transforming the Irish health system.  Technological innovations brought about by robotics, virtual reality, automation/artificial intelligence, 3D printing and drones are all worth investigating, having the potential to disrupt the health industry and ultimately improve it.

While health systems in other parts of the world might be using some of these technologies, Ireland also needs to consider exploiting these technologies to make step changes in how healthcare is delivered to patients including faster diagnosis, greater precision in surgery and improved administration of drugs.

International adoption of new technologies

Robotics

In Eindhoven, the Netherlands, for example, Prof Marc de Smet has for close to ten years been developing the ‘Preceyes’ microrobot  in surgery which is going to revolutionise eye operations where a high degree of precision is required. Microrobots will soon transform retinal surgery and the way eye conditions caused by genetic defects are treated.  According to Prof de Smet, who was in Dublin recently, “Eye surgery demands a high level of skill and we have pretty much reached a limit as to what we can currently do unassisted.  However, last year, we had a major breakthrough when we used robot-assisted surgery for the first time on the human eye”.  We also know that a private hospital in Ireland operates ‘CyberKnife’ treatment, a robotic treatment solution that delivers treatment for types of cancer and neurological conditions that were previously considered untreatable.

Virtual reality

In Sweden, a pharmacy chain Apotek Hjärtat provides its customers with a virtual reality experience that can help alleviate pain and discomfort, for example during a vaccination. Through a virtual reality experience, the customer is taken to a serene lakeside paradise where they can interact with the surroundings. By simply looking at different objects they can trigger music they like, light a fire or even beckon a sea monster!  In doing so, they forget about the pain, making the medical procedure and/or recuperation more bearable. 

Automation

In the US, research is ongoing to create a handheld device that could diagnose up to 13 health conditions and capture the key vital signs of a patient.  Such consumer-operated “Star Trek” style “tricorders” will perform work currently handled by primary care workers. These devices will be engineered to integrate existing health technologies automatically in the home and combine various data points to generate the relevant information for patients and physicians alike.  Doctors will be able to make a diagnosis/decide on a course of treatment without physically seeing the patient.  

3D printing

3D printing is a technology used in other countries for many years.  In Ireland, we’re seeing some Orthodontists using 3D printing, for example, scanning a patient’s teeth for purposes impressions/crowns where restoration can be produced with a perfect fit. Our research highlights that 3D printing is also being used to produce customised hearing aids and even epilepsy medication.

Drones

In Rwanda, we have an example of the world’s only drone medical delivery service on a national scale. Urgent medical supplies and blood products are delivered to patients when they need it regardless of where they live. This service, which started in October 2016, is saving lives and having an impact on health care by reducing the time taken to deliver urgent medical supplies.  In Ireland, this technology is very much still in development and cost and regulation will be factors also to be considered.  It is nevertheless an indication of what is possible with enormous potential benefits.

Facing the future of healthcare

These technologies are beginning to revolutionise the health system and healthcare supply chains. For example, pharmaceutical companies can address issues such as increasing regulatory complexity, complex supply chains, tightening competition, rising demand for personalised treatments and the persistence of counterfeits much more quickly.   By applying emerging technologies such as those mentioned above, physicians, hospitals, pharmaceutical companies and other healthcare stakeholders can significantly boost their decision making process to provide a better service to the patient, who is fully involved in the process.

Whether we like it or not, emerging technologies including AI and robotics, are the future of healthcare.  Access to quality, affordable healthcare, and good health for everyone are the ultimate goals.  The economic and social advantages to be gained from integrating these technologies seamlessly into our existing healthcare systems, and then creating new models of healthcare based on these technologies, are enormous.

In Ireland there is a great opportunity to exploit such emerging technologies to deliver real improvement in health care.  Whether it’s using microrobots for complex eye surgery, 3D printing for customised hearing aids or drones to deliver medication and medical supplies to rural parts of the country, it will need thorough planning, skills and resources to deliver.


Written by Dennis Brown, Director, PwC Healthcare Technology Practice
First published on Silicon Republic, January 2018

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Dennis Brown

Director, PwC Ireland (Republic of)

Tel: +353 1 792 7631

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