The digital health industry, although it does not give off that impression, is an extremely competitive field. New companies and new technologies emerge every single year, coming and going at an astonishing pace. Some of these newcomers are pioneers, bringing revolutionary potential to the industry, whereas others fail dramatically. However, it is not just technologies or companies in digital heath, it is also other areas, like privacy and medical events that play a part in the field.
Keeping up to track with all the recent developments can be daunting, even more so after feeling like cast members of Jumanji this past year. Therefore, in this post, we have selected a number of areas involved in digital health, that have either been big winners or sore losers of the year 2020. The ‘digital health race’ of 2020 can surely not compare to the (canceled) Summer Olympics, however, their results will most definitely bring forward various fascinating trends in the coming years and thus, they warrant our attention.
The digital health industry already consisted of ready-made solutions and existing approaches that had the potential to face the challenges that arose with the pandemic. Due to all this potential, the winners exceeded the losers in 2020, and of course was a strong boost for anyone that is involved in the field. The pandemic mandated a mass adoption of these pre-existing solutions, making them winnners of the year’s digital health race and we wil begin by mentioning those winners below.
1. At-home lab tests
The popularity of at-home lab tests skyrocketed in 2020 and the reasons behind that are pretty simple. Firstly, these direct-to-consumer tests eliminate the risk of cross-infection and do not even require one to leave the comfort of their own home. Secondly, even authorities are adopting such point-of-care tests for detecting COVID-19. The mass adoption of this solution, predicates the way in which these tests will dominate in 2021. Anyone can do an at-home lab test, whether it is for detecting COVID-19 or analysing their microbiome.
2. Smartwatches embedded with ECG
Apple, Samsung and Withings have picked up on the latest trend amongst smartwatch developers, and that is embedding their devices with ECG monitors. All the aforementioned companies provide their consumers with ECG monitors that they can wear around their wrist. The electrocardiogram offers the chance to consumers to identify undetected conditions, is getting approved by regulatory bodies and new evidence is constantly emerging in the literature about their usefulness.
Before the pandemic, only 18% of U.S. consumers adopted telemedicine services, however, after the emergance of COVID-19, the adoption of these remote care services accelerated dramatically, some services even noting a 158% increase, in the same country. The numbers predict that the practice of telemedicine in the future will be the new norm.
4. Mental health services
There has been a steady increase in the use of apps directed towards mental wellness, in recent years, such as Headspace and Calm, and the pandemic contributed to that increase in 2020. The population has suffered many psychological ramifications due to the pandemic, a fact showcased in Britain, where the number of adults suffering from depression doubled in size. Telepsychology was a solution for patients to seek medical help and psychologists plan to continue this practice even after we put the pandemic behind us.
5. Lifestyle medicine
Lifestyle medicine is a rising field in medicine, defined as “the evidence-based practice of helping individuals and families adopt and sustain healthy behaviours that affect health and quality of life.” Lifestyle medicine focuses on preventative measures which can be combined with digital health solutions. Digital health solutions can thus be adopted on a larger scale, with lifestyle medicine specialists setting the pace. The American College of Lifestyle Medicine set up board exams certifying those taking a professional course in lifestyle medicine, proving that this budding field has begun to be accepted in medical mainstream thinking. With 2020’s mass adoption of digital health technologies, lifestyle medicine’s popularity is bound to continue growing.
6. Network medicine
Network medicine, a branch of network science, examines how biological factors, such as molecules and diseases, and their relationships, like metabolic pathways and shared genes, influence each other. BarabasiLab repurposed their network medicine toolset in order to come up with a treatment for COVID-19 and in less than ten days since they did that they created a list of favorable drugs for testing in human cell lines in an experimental lab. This method of theirs epitomizes a prospective novel approach towards repurposing existing drugs for new diseases.
7. Science focused leadership
The success stories of New Zealand, Germany and Taiwan, in terms of how they dealt with the COVID-19 public health crisis all have one thing in common. Their leaders focused on science. The decisions made by these leaders were based on information they received from the medical community and scientists, and they were transparent in the way they communicated this genuine information to their population. Countries such as South Korea and Taiwan adopted digital health solutions and they boast that that played a part in their success of managing the spread of the virus.
8. Digital health investments
One would think that this year’s lockdowns, both economic and physical, would have taken their toll on digital health investments, however 2020 has proved to be a record breaking year in that regard. Prior to the pandemic the largest annual sum in investments was reached in 2018, boasting a total of $8.1 billion. In Q3 of 2020, the total amount of investments was a whopping $9.4 billion! The focus of these investments was mainly on companies that offered solutions for on-demand healthcare services and remote care, solutions for necessary and realistic needs amidst the pandemic.
9. Artificial Intelligence
Before any health authority issued any alarm about the impending breakout of COVID-19, the first warning issued came from an A.I. company all the way back in December 2019! It is no wonder that A.I.’s importance in healthcare continued to grow this year, with the amount of medical Artifical Inteligence studies going through the roof, particularly for its contribution in medical diagnostics. A.I. technology is being used in various ways to help healthcare professionals in the pandemic. These ways include helping patients evaluate their symptoms with the use of chatbots and even helping diagnoses from facial scans and coughs!
In this second section, attention will be given to the 4 most noteworthy losers of the digital health race in 2020, as the field, although it grew drastically, also suffered some setbacks. Nevertheless, the below examples can offer some valuable insight into what improvements digital health needs in the future.
1. In-person medical events
Traditional medical events have always been held in-person, a practice that has recently become outdated due to the risks COVID-19 posed on these gatherings. Some in-person events did take place in 2020, however, there were several reports of participants being infected with COVID-19. The upside to this situation is that the industry was given the opportunity to come up with innovative ways of holding these events, by going digital. If digital medical events are conducted appropriately they can prove to be ever better than the traditional method of in-person, as they can be more inclusive, engaging and provide further visual insights.
2. The digital pills industry
The company Proteus is a good example of one of the losers of 2020’s digital health race, as it filed for bankruptcy this year, losing its title as the leader in the digital pill industry. Their digital pill Abilify Mycite, was the first to receive FDA approval in 2017 and Proteus’ value as a company was $1.5 billion in 2019. Their bankruptcy serves as a good reason for investors to be cautious about the digital pill industry, however, Proetus’ failure does not reflect the technology involved in the industry, as evidence proves that it works. Proteus’ downfall only showcases a failure within the company itself and its management.
3. Data privacy
Another ramification of the coronavirus was the threat posed on data privacy. Many countries employed aggressive contact tracing methods as it was the fastest and most efficacious method available to minimize the spread of the virus. However, this method was used at the expense of privacy. South Korea, for example, used a tracing method which tracked bank transactions and phone activity, as well as CCTV footage. Another example is Russia’s Moscow that used a QR-based system, that monitored citizen’s movement. Moscow’s system has even been refered to as ‘cyber Gulag’! The vulnerabilities existant in COVID contact tracing apps that other countries used also posed the threat of exposing an individual’s data. It has been a fine line for citizens having to perform their civic duty, allowing governments to trace those infected, but also maintaining their privacy.
Fitbit used to be considered the leader in fitness tracking, however, this last year has seen it plummet dramatically. Google acquired Fitbit for the price of $2.1 billion at the end of 2019, however, although a merger of giants, since the acquisition, Fitbit has only reased 2 fitness trackers and 2 smartwatches. Fitbit Sense, their new line, took a while to rollout, as it was released in September 2020 and the quality of the company’s customer service also seems to be going down, an issue our personal experience proves . Dr. Meskó ordered a Fitbit Sense, that not only did he never receive, but the customer service team did not help in retrieving his order.
This it the end of our list featuring the winners and losers in the digital health industry of 2020 and all these examples can help us in understanding what we should expect for the industry in 2021 and the future. Are there any other areas you considered a success in 2020 and were not featured on our list?