Medicine 2.0: The Future of Digital Medicine
“Technology is reshaping our reality.” – John Nosta, Founder, NOSTALAB
Photo Source: Tony Kane Consulting
Imagine this: a smart contact lens in your eye; a digital pill fitted with a sensor to digitally track medicines being ingested; or, cancer-fighting nanobots injected into the bloodstream. This is fact, not fiction. Gone are the days when robots, biosensors, and body-embedded health trackers were seen merely as elements from a sci-fi Hollywood blockbuster. These are realities in the making, all thanks to the game-changing wave of digital technology. Yet, critics beg to differ, citing that the fuss surrounding digital medicine is overstated. Practitioners and industry stakeholders and players are still in the midst of adapting to tremendous change. And the end user is perhaps somewhat unaware and unprepared for the new-age digital health revolution. So, what does the future hold for digital medicine?
Breaking Barriers Digitally
At the outset, it is important to understand the primary difference between digital medicine and digital health. According to Marcelo Lamego, Founder and CEO of True Wearables, “Digital medicine is regulated, while digital health is not. Digital medicine is comprised of products and services for preventive and/or diagnostic medical care, aimed at personalising care and reducing costs. Digital health/fitness, on the other hand, consists of products and services that are not directly associated with medical care, as they are not subjected to the same medical standards.” Big Pharma is still in the process of defining and understanding what constitutes digital medicine, or digital therapeutics. Speaking in the context of his company’s digital prescription treatment for addiction, Corey McCann of Pear Therapeutics explains, “Much like a physical drug, a digital therapeutic must run through clinical trials, demonstrate efficacy and meet fundamental safety codes.”
So, while developments in digital health are moving at a rapid pace, digital medicine is progressing relatively slowly. However, both are shifting the gears of the medical world to drive new and unimaginable possibilities in curative treatment. Against the backdrop of rising healthcare costs, technology is enabling increased access and accuracy in medical care with real-time data. Advances in artificial intelligence (AI), genomics, and robotics are making it possible to decode complex patient symptoms and information. This, in turn, is giving impetus to breakthroughs such as precision medicine and minimally invasive surgery. Simultaneously, it is empowering patients to become proactive players in healthcare. As Dean Lloyd Minor, MD, aptly says, “The digital transformation of health, healthcare and biomedicine offers us as educators, as physicians, as healthcare providers, a unique opportunity to return to the high-touch aspects of medicine, because those high-touch aspects are enabled by high tech.”
Canary Health CEO, Adam Kaufman, recently stated, “What sets digital medicine apart from just about any technology is its commitment to outcomes.” Digital medicine is already making positive inroads in care and first-line therapeutics and clinical trials, according to Kaufman. Both small and big players are increasingly venturing into digital medicine. A case in point is Google, which is reportedly delving into longevity research to seek cures for age-related diseases.
According to Lamego, “Digital medicine is the future of medicine. It really comes to a very simple principle: We can only control what we can measure. The availability of platforms that enable access to data and connect people, especially within home settings, have the power to change how we live.” He adds that personalised genetic-driven therapies, long-term data trends in preventive care, value-based healthcare, and lifestyle changes in certain demographics, give digital medicine the framework it needs to drive new therapies. It also facilitates increased healthcare coverage, while keeping costs in check by reducing long-term expenditures associated with diagnostic medical care.
Too Much, Too Soon?
Undoubtedly, the digital medicine revolution is here. However, the big question is, is it all too much, too soon? Lamego points out that the digital medicine boom is currently exaggerated, largely driven by anxious investors and businesses seeking short-term value creation. The higher the stakes, the more complex the journey. As such, one can expect multiple regulatory challenges and medical failures along the way. For digital medicine to really work, the prevailing gap between existing regulatory standards and advancements in medical technology must be narrowed down. The role of measured and effective regulation will be pivotal in here.
Kaufman believes that the two main hurdles hampering progress are innovation and reimbursement. Keeping pace with technological change and remaining relevant while managing outcomes will be a challenge.
Furthermore, critics believe that humans are possibly overstepping boundaries of ethics and nature. The biggest roadblock ahead for digital medicine is perhaps efficacy and therapeutic safety. As Lamego points out, “The widespread adoption of medical technologies connected to the Cloud raise critical issues related to safety, security, and privacy. However, current crypto technologies are addressing, and will continue to address, such challenges.”
Beyond requirements pertaining to regulation, ethics, and safety, there is also the question of accessibility. Will digital medicine, and the requisite need for access to technology and connectivity, be a barrier for the end user?
Crossroads of Change
Lamego believes that, “The future of digital medicine will be in the convergence of medical drugs and medical devices. Just imagine a ‘Honey, I shrunk the kids’ scenario, but instead of micro people trying to survive in a world of gigantic challenges, we will have a combination of drug molecules and (wireless) micro sensors navigating the human body, monitoring and relaying real-time information about its physiology, and providing treatment at the molecular/cellular level. It seems like science fiction, but this may happen in our lifetime.”
Indeed, digital medicine is a revolution still in the making. Myriad questions remain unanswered, the answers to which will only be revealed with time. The need of the hour, however, is for governments, regulatory bodies, and medical professionals to collaborate closely on aspects such as pay schemes, standardisation, safety, and ethics to iron out the initial creases in the fabric.