The pandemic put major pressure on the healthcare industry. For the patients of tomorrow, that’s a good thing.
Much of the pressure stemmed from the most urgent challenge: the rapid (sub-1 year) development of a COVID-19 vaccine. But the pandemic also presented many auxiliary challenges, largely related to remote care, that demanded innovation.
With the pandemic seemingly on the wane (knock on wood), what will become of COVID-era medical innovations?
Experts suggest they’re here to stay—and, in many cases, picking up steam.
No one wishes for a global crisis. But the reality is, global crises often spark unimaginable innovations. World War I gave us teabags, wristwatches, and veggie sausage; World War II gave us a flu vaccine, penicillin, and blood plasma transfusions. COVID-19 was not a weapons-based war, but with 6 million casualties worldwide, it was certainly a fight for survival.
Looking beyond COVID-19’s pandemic stage, here are five key healthcare innovations to watch in 2022:
1. Predictive care based on machine learning. High blood pressure—or hypertension—contributes to more than half a million U.S. deaths per year. Not because it’s hard to treat, but because it shows no symptoms, and is therefore very hard to detect.
But new machine learning methods enable AI to predict hypertension (and other hard-to-detect diseases) based on commonly associated physical conditions. It also helps physicians develop more precise medication and dosage regimens, reducing the likelihood of a major cardiovascular event.
2. AI for sepsis detection. Like hypertension, sepsis is very deadly and very difficult to detect. But unlike hypertension, the detection difficulty stems from the fact that sepsis symptoms are common to many other conditions. In fact, there’s no official standard for sepsis diagnosis.
New AI identifies patients at high risk for sepsis, monitoring their electronic health records in real-time. This enables physicians to catch sepsis before it develops into a fatal condition.
3. Next-gen mRNA vaccinology. Messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines train our bodies to trigger certain immune responses—like fighting off COVID-19. It was discovered in the 1960s, and widespread research was underway by the 1970s.
Now, mRNA vaccines are inexpensive to develop, and COVID-19 pressures have enhanced global delivery methods. They have proven useful against diseases ranging from Zika virus to certain cancers. Going forward, their role in addressing major diseases all around the world should only increase.
4. Diagnostic AI. It used to take a human physician’s eyes and training to identify diseases. Now, AI is being used to help identify skin conditions, read radiology scans, and even predict protein structures (allowing physicians to predict obscure conditions like acute kidney disease before they manifest).
In addition to making life easier for patients at risk, diagnostic AI has the power to take pressure off of hospitals, freeing up resources for more urgent situations.
5. Enhanced chatbots. Patients’ “first point of contact,” the first entity they speak to about their condition, got tricky in the pandemic when interpersonal contact became dangerous. Plus, in-person medical resources shifted to patients with emergency conditions, making elective care a distant second priority.
Chatbots have played a major role in symptom assessment and triage over the past couple years. Because they make life more convenient (and less costly) for patients, and enable efficient resource allocation for hospitals, their role should only develop.
The list doesn’t end here. New treatments for postpartum depression, menopause, prostate cancer and more are either in development or seeing release.
The world paid a heavy price for these innovations. But going forward, those of us lucky enough to have survived the pandemic have reason to look forward to higher quality, less expensive care.