Healthcare systems around the world are failing. Many are simply not fit for purpose anymore, and those that still cope are not futureproof according to a new report by RB, a leading consumer health company, predicting 14 futuristic trends that will change consumer healthcare as we know it.
According to the report, one of the biggest disruptors of healthcare is – maybe surprisingly – urbanisation. Moving to the city should get people closer to first-rate healthcare, but it also changes our lifestyles – whether that’s eating more unhealthy processed foods, a sedentary life in an environment short of open green spaces, or more pollution and overall stress. The results are problems like asthma, and an obesity epidemic that by 2045 will affect nearly a quarter of the world’s population. Already, epidemiologists are noting a sharp rise in chronic illnesses like diabetes and chronic pain, which they see as contributing to three quarters of all deaths.
There are other trade-offs for city dwellers: while they may be getting better paid jobs or a broader range of entertainment, they are also putting themselves at a higher risk of depression than those living in the countryside – by over 40 percent, with a 20 percent increase in anxiety.
Other societal changes have an impact too, like the rise of single-parent households, where working parents often struggle to take control of their children’s diet. “There’s almost an outsourcing of feeding children that is being passed on to others through nursery and childcare settings, and even other family members,” says professor Jane Scott, a specialist in public health nutrition research at Curtin University. “Regardless of intentions, they may or may not follow instructions or provide the right kind of food.”
Then there are other ‘lifestyle’ changes, like the growing trend to give birth via Caesarean section; in many cases, this is an absolutely necessary procedure, but it always deprives newborn babies from receiving vital microbes that they would normally pick up while travelling through the birth canal. There is a correlation between this and rising rates of asthma and other illnesses amongst children.
Finally, and more obviously, fundamental demographic shifts are changing the world of healthcare, with ageing populations that live longer and work longer, which can have both positive and negative effects. The “evidence shows that working can aid resilience in later life by boosting cognitive function,” says Maria Konovalenko, an ageing expert at the University of Southern California. “However, there are physical changes to contend with. Chronic inflammation is a serious problem for older people.” For those that don’t work, a lack of social connections also has serious side effects, says Konovalenko: “Loneliness is massively detrimental to health.”
Taken together, these trends result in rapidly escalating healthcare costs. That in turn drives many consumers to look for quick and easy solutions beyond their traditional medical support systems. Their starting points are often a web search or seeing a video or story that’s going viral on social networks. The endpoint, however, is in many cases confusion or misinformation, spread by dubious ‘influencers’. “People that are unqualified are ready to offer all sorts of advice. These people might have millions of followers, and it’s just magnifying the dangers,” warns Scott. The result is a huge and growing healthcare gap, that needs to be filled if we want to avoid failure, says Bertalan Mesko, founder of The Medical Futurist.
Maneesh Juneja, a digital health futurist, says: “The existing model of care is broken, unsustainable and not fit for purpose, given the rise in chronic conditions and everyday pain.”
However, as the Future of Consumer Health report shows, which was commissioned by leading global consumer health, hygiene and home company RB and developed in collaboration with health futurists, a whole raft of new and dramatically different approaches to prevention and healthcare has the potential to fill this gap and transform public health around the world.
Just like the consumerisation of IT has transformed the world of work, we are now on the verge of the consumerisation of healthcare, thanks to wearables that help people to self-diagnose their key vital data, or make them accessible remotely, to avoid costly and time-consuming hospital visits.
Add even more radical new technologies like diagnostics powered by artificial intelligence, virtual reality treatments, nanotechnology and personalised probiotics, and it’s no surprise that “in the next five to 10 years, we’ll witness a paradigm shift as technology empowers consumers, who want to be involved and engaged, to take control of their health,” says Mesko.
We live in a world that’s conditioned by technological breakthroughs to expect real-time, on-demand, convenient and seamless solutions. Already, wearables can go way beyond measuring our pulse and blood oxygen. Engineers at Rutgers University, for example, have developed a microchip that can be put into a smartwatch to analyse the sweat of its wearer and identify early signs of ill health. Digital technology can also help nudge patients towards behavioural changes, for example by helping them with their diet or making them stick to a treatment plan.
The opportunities, however, are much bigger. Scientists predict that smart speakers in people’s homes will not only be able to spot whether a person is coming down with a cold, but could even “detect early signs of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s,” says Juneja.
Using artificial intelligence for medical diagnosis is also not a pipedream. Healthcare start-up Babylon Health has an app that achieves a score of 81 per cent on a diagnosis exam. That’s significantly better than human clinicians, who have a five-year average score of 72 per cent. It’s this kind of accuracy that will help consumers to self-diagnose with a reasonable degree of confidence.
Virtual reality is another technology with a lot of untapped potential. Numerous studies around the world have shown that VR can be used to treat a wide range of problems, from debilitating anxieties to chronic pain. “When a burn victim can fly though snowy mountains in VR, for example, they objectively feel better, and pain is reduced,” says Mesko. In Sweden, a pharmacy chain is already offering its own VR app to help people manage pain effectively. Other digital technologies that can help solve the global healthcare crisis are robots that provide the elderly with digital companionship.
The most dramatic transformation of our healthcare systems, however, relies on technologies that use barely visible tools. Nanotechnology, which uses materials at molecular or subatomic level, will be able to take sensors to places where no other technology will reach, and can deliver drugs to patients not only in a highly targeted, but also extremely personalized way.
“Imagine a future where you get a personalised prescription that you can download, and the drug prints in a unique quantity, shape and dosage that’s tailored to your body,” says Juneja. The same approach also opens up the promise of bioelectronic treatments, that one day may be able to repair or replace damaged nerves.
The other ‘technology’ that’s set to change the patient experience is actually one of the oldest used by our body: the micro-organisms that are an integral part of how we live and survive. The importance of this human microbiome has been recognised only recently, but as the report underlines, it has the potential to be a key focus for 21st century healthcare. “Startups are now trying to harness microbiome science,” says Marie-Claire Arrieta, a microbiome scientist at the University of Calgary.
“A number of biotech companies are designing next generation probiotics that could one day be prescribed post-birth to prevent asthma in a child, or to treat obesity.” Already, there are clinical trials underway to see whether cocktails of microbes can be used to treat or prevent certain health issues. Fortified and probiotic foods for babies are another focus for medical research – once again with the promise of delivering highly personalised treatments.
“It’s fascinating to witness how disruptive innovations are beginning to change healthcare,” says Mesko. “Enormous technological changes are heading our way and they will prove transformative.”
From RB’s point of view, the key will now be to make sure that all the creativity and innovation of biotech and health-tech start-ups can be harnessed to reach patients and consumers. “We absolutely want to partner with startups and experts. Together, we can reach consumers with new health solutions faster.,” says Dave Evendon-Challis, VP Innovation at RB. After all, says Bertalan Mesko, “if we are unprepared for this future, then the opportunity to thrive will be lost.”
To download the full Consumer Futures Report go to www.rb.com/innovation. To submit an idea to RB, email [email protected]