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Health Care, Consumerism and the Tides of Change

Published on 5/31/2017

This blog originally appeared in the March-April 2017 issue of Hospitals Magazine.

We have experienced many disruptions of established industries in the recent past. Take a look at photography, for instance, where Kodak went from 170,000 employees to being bankrupt within three years. Then there's the movie rental industry, where video stores like Blockbuster vanished as streaming companies like Netflix and Hulu have become global empires. Then there's transportation and accommodation — the two largest companies leading those respective spaces are Uber and Airbnb, and they don't own any assets.

Will health care be the next industry to see changes of this magnitude? Are we facing a future where the largest provider does not own any hospitals or practices and does not employ any clinical staff?

It's clear that the way we all worked five years ago is drastically different from how we work today. What does this mean for health care? In this blog, we'll explore some rising trends that will have a substantial impact on the industry as we know it today.

Treating illness and disorders with virtual reality

Most of us are familiar with the concept of virtual reality — a few of us might even have tried a game using an Oculus Rift or enjoyed a virtual flight over the Grand Canyon via our smartphone. Virtual reality has actually been used for the past two decades in health care settings with post-traumatic stress disorder patients and burn patients to soothe or distract them from the pain during their treatments. For the last decade, virtual reality has also often used to effectively treat phobias.

Now, we're beginning to see virtual reality used in the recovery of stroke and Parkinson's disease patients, where patients can simulate walks through a forest, strolls along a shore or even rides on a sailboat. These actions require multiple body areas to work in harmony, and we're seeing that in these cases, virtual reality is helping to shorten the healing process.

There are many more areas where the use of virtual reality can have a profound impact, including holoportation. This form of virtual 3-D teleportation in near real-time has the potential to provide training to medical students who want to take part in a surgery in a way that's almost firsthand. It can also prepare health care professionals who are carrying out critical, life-saving tasks and need to function in the case of an emergency.

Augmented reality: Real-life experience meets digital content

Augmented reality is enhancing our real-life experience with digital content, which can be particularly beneficial during surgeries where critical information can be presented to the surgeon in a nondisruptive manner during the procedure. MindMaze took this concept even further and is projecting an avatar into the virtual reality for post-stroke and Parkinson's disease patients to imitate movements; this positively impacts recovery by aiding the correct execution of specific movement patterns. Getting the right guidance for recovery can not only help patients heal, but also help train new staff members.

On the rise: mixed reality

Imagine that digital content is injected seamlessly into our everyday lives, even tricking our brain into believing it is part of reality. This sounds more like science fiction for most of us, but a company called MagicLeap is exactly planning to do that. They digitized the visual signal that our eyes use to process the things we see, giving us the opportunity to have virtual content seamlessly integrated into our life experience. This mixed reality is in the early development stages, and it's clear that it'll be some time before it's adopted by the mainstream. However, the possibilities particularly for the health care and life space are enormous.

Artificial intelligence and health care

Most of us have toyed around with the digital assistants surrounding us, be it Apple's Siri, Amazon's Echo or OK Google, to name a few. It's unlikely that any of us are using those tools excessively. As artificial intelligence (AI) continues to develop and mature, the opportunities for such tools to develop and integrate into our lives will increase. Lighthouse projects such as Google's DeepMind Health Project, IBM's Watson or iCarbonX are paving the way for what the future of AI in health care could be. In the United Kingdom, Babylon has already launched an AI-focused app that can deliver basic medical consultation.

In the future, we can expect the role of a medical practitioner to evolve as AI takes over a portion of the tasks clinicians carry out today. Personalized health coaches will become a natural part of our lives moving forward, but this doesn't mean that it'll always be a human being we are interacting with. Additionally, though genomics is still in the early stages, we can expect an AI-enriched data foundation that will identify patterns and connections in genomic structures and diseases that we aren't yet aware of, which will in turn contribute to the creation of new treatment plans.

Still, there's some fear and suspicion surrounding AI, so health care industry leaders should take care to introduce proper governance as the foundation for AI developments.

Consumerization of health and life

Where do all of these realities and AI come together? We're all living in an increasingly technological world that is much different from how we lived 10 years ago.

More and more, we're seeing health care being provided outside the four walls of a health facility. The entire dynamic of consumer-focused services has already started in the health care industry. Soon, a complete consumerization of health and life will be our daily reality. Already, our fitness trackers and smartwatches are capturing our information, and we're using applications to book hotels and flights, order cars and even find our future spouses. It's only a matter time before the health care industry has its own menu of apps dedicated to boosting the consumer experience.

On one hand, this virtual, augmented, mixed, digital future can sound overwhelming, perhaps even frightening. On the other hand, it offers health care leaders the opportunity to embark on a new frontier of solutions.

Cerner's unified Health Network Architecture is designed with open and interoperable platforms that can integrate together or with other systems to connect clinical, operational and financial data across the health care ecosystem. Learn more here.