PM360 asked medtech experts how technology can be helpful during the pandemic and the biggest barriers for developers, or more specifically:
- What are the best opportunities for medtech developers to help during the pandemic? What are some longer-term opportunities as we look toward a world following the developments of COVID-19 treatments or vaccines?
- Besides COVID-19, what currently is or will be in 2021 the biggest hurdle to getting new medtech solutions to market? How can companies overcome these hurdles?
While COVID-19 is one of the most contagious and threatening diseases the world has faced in a very long time, our medical technology advancements give us a greater opportunity to contain the threat than with any previous contagion. We can do a better job at getting ahead of this disease. Wearables can assist us, and should be an area of expertise developers focus on.
In March, a traveler from Europe to the U.S. was alerted by his Oura smart ring to irregular changes in his body temperature, respiratory function, and other biometric data. He immediately sought testing for COVID-19, learning he was positive three days before he noticed the symptoms. This led to Oura and the NBA creating a partnership to help identify potential outbreaks sooner as the NBA resumes games and attempts to complete the 2020 season.
Imagine if similar technology were available to all residents of a nursing home. Shared data with a physician or other staff could trigger earlier diagnosis, community testing, and identification of supply needs with respect to personal protective equipment or treatment. Between data-sharing technology and smart devices, medical technology can help us get ahead of COVID-19 and other diseases.
As health systems and public administrations seek to combat the spread of COVID-19 and prevent surges and waves, medtech developers have opportunities to harness the power of artificial intelligence (AI) to get to a pandemic-free world faster. We have the chance to build the kind of technology infrastructure that not only advances how healthcare is delivered generally but also how potential pandemics or natural calamities can be effectively responded to.
From a purely technology point of view, given how much data we have around COVID-19, it is reasonable to treat it as a big data problem. Here, AI can surface patterns in how the disease spreads in communities, how it affects the human body over the long term, aid in telemedicine, and identify potential vaccines and therapies. While research organizations and pharma companies are leveraging the efficiencies that come through using AI techniques, many public health administrations have been lagging behind in effectively containing the spread through smart and agile data-driven courses of action, and therein lies the opportunity. The road to a vaccinated world where SARS-CoV-2 is not a threat is long and rocky but innovative uses of AI can make the ride a lot less bumpy.
The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated trends toward remote education for medical professionals. Large, in-person meetings and conventions have been replaced with video conferencing and other web-based offerings. Immersive technologies such as augmented reality (AR) can be used to enhance this mode of learning beyond the borders of traditional screens. Large numbers of medical professionals now carry devices, such as phones and tablets, capable of projecting interactive 3D holographic content in any physical location.
Case Western Reserve University recently invested in this strategy by sending more than 180 Microsoft HoloLens AR headsets to medical students, allowing them to walk around and explore life-sized holographic anatomy in their own homes. AR was used to enable students to engage in immersive and interactive group learning that led to a 44% increase in the students’ retention of the material (https://bit.ly/3jZYf3c).
After the pandemic passes, many of these new methods of remote learning will remain as part of the educational landscape. Just as large numbers of people currently working remotely will never fully return to the office, medical education will likely be forever changed by novel technologies and a new level of familiarity with immersive and remote learning solutions.
Identifying the biggest hurdle COVID-19 caused for the overall medtech market is impossible because the pandemic caused individual market segments to face extremely different circumstances. For example, telemedicine, lab test, and personal protective equipment (PPE) markets exploded as innovation, supply chains, and regulators adapted to products that are received by end-users quickly. Conversely, for anything that can be stalled, such as elective procedures or clinical trials, roadblocks have increased.
While medtechs already know the initial impact of COVID-19 on their business, knowing what to expect next has become a huge hurdle. One useful tool for assessing an uncertain future is scenario analysis. By building out optimistic, pessimistic, and base case forecast scenarios with diverse considerations such as the impact of procedure volumes, supply chains, and other evolving market dynamics, companies can better understand the worst- and best-case situations they face and improve their ability to prioritize and allocate resources.
Particularly at this time, it is also important to develop scenario analysis models with assumptions that can be adapted over time. By tracking factors as they accelerate or decelerate, organizations can mitigate risk and expedite new plans despite the quickly evolving environment.
Probably the single largest challenge facing medtech products is commercialization. The disruptive advancements in this field will take us into new frontiers, but only if the infrastructure exists to commercialize, pay, dispense, and measure these therapies and products. Because of COVID-19, we witnessed unprecedented demands for digital medicine and telehealth solutions—transitioning from a critical element that patients, HCPs, and payers needed to be aware of to a must have.
A myriad of significant advances enabled this pivot, including:
- Medicare’s reimbursement of telehealth and remote patient monitoring
- FDA’s focus on digital health
- Increased venture funding and partnerships in digital health
- Emergence of digital formularies
- Growing customer adoption of digital wellness and digital care programs
As the demand for the new model of care increases, so does our need to establish successful pathways to commercialization that deliver more value to patients, and solve regulatory, reimbursement, and adoption barriers across the product’s lifecycle. We are now more aware than ever before of the critical need and potential for digital medicine to relieve the burden on the healthcare system.
Medtech hasn’t struggled with gaining big investments, but it has struggled to make big money. It earns a fraction of what the pharma industry brings in, and consumer medtech hasn’t delivered as a standalone industry even though the health-related segment of consumer technology has (i.e., the Apple Watch). But seriously useful medtech has struggled to actualize the transformative power of the underlying technology. The issue: Treatment is compensated within the payer model, not diagnosis or outcomes.
The past belongs to cures—the era of antibiotics and vaccines that saved us from cholera and the plague. The present belongs to targeted treatment—therapies based on a deeper understanding of pathophysiology of disease. The future will be driven by prevention at the individual level using real-time and remote diagnostics that are minimally invasive. Can the industry evolve to a place technologically and culturally in which we can frame prevention beyond exercise videos to technology-enabled, continuous monitoring of saliva and breath to identify enzymes and volatile organic compounds that are predictors of many types of diseases, including cancers? At what point does medtech converge with digital therapeutics? These are the questions that will shape our health future.