The top 10 ways digital will transform healthcare

Janssen’s Kris Sterkens gives his thoughts on how digital will continue to influence healthcare in the age of information.

With over 30 years in the pharma industry, I have witnessed tremendous advancements in healthcare, but few have been as significant as the dawn of digital. Since the emergence of the World Wide Web, digital technology has advanced at a staggering rate, and the healthcare sector has not been excluded from the impact of this revolution.

By the early 2000s, driven by a growing need for cost-effective healthcare, several national initiatives to digitise patient data were established, fueling the emergence of new terminology in “eHealth” or “digital health”. Israel was among the first to successfully adopt electronic health records, however for many others, such as the United Kingdom or Germany, billions in investment were lost in abandoned attempts.

Digitising healthcare almost immediately presented itself as a financial double-edged sword, with the clear potential to save billions annually, while also demanding the need for substantial up-front investment to build the necessary infrastructure. To this effect, at the start of 2008 the European Union (EU) launched the Lead Market Initiative, identifying digital healthcare among the most promising of markets.

“Digitising healthcare almost immediately presented itself as a financial double-edged sword”

By 2018, the boom of smart technology set the foundations for the digital era, permitting a world of interconnectivity, insight and opportunity that revolutionised the landscape of medicine to something unrecognisable to that a mere 20 years ago. In 2017 alone, the digital healthcare industry was valued at an astounding $25 billion globally, a value projected to skyrocket above $379 billion by 2024. With figures like that, it’s safe to say we’re yet to see the full impact of digital medicine.

While we’ve come a long way as an industry, I think we’ve only started to scratch the surface. What is becoming increasingly clear is that we must stop acting in isolation, and take on our role as a cross-collaborative integrated solutions provider with digital tools providing the foundation of that change. Here are ten ways I think, with the right approach, digital technology can influence our healthcare systems for the better.

1) Superior collaboration across industries and expertise

With healthcare expenditure recorded in excess of €1.5 trillion across the EU in 2015, it’s no wonder that the “Big Four” tech giants – Microsoft, Apple, Amazon and Google – have been keen to establish their presence in this booming industry. We’re already seeing results with the development of health platforms like Microsoft’s Connected Health, Apple’s HealthKit or Google’s GoogleFit. By merging our scientific expertise, with the capabilities of tech companies large and small, I believe the best of both worlds can come together to create something truly remarkable.

Take J&J and Google’s joint venture into digital surgery with VERB Surgical. J&J’s Ethicon brings its knowledge of surgical instrumentation to the partnership, while Google contributes its machine vision, imaging analysis, and data analytics expertise. The potential of this collaborative approach is huge and I hope it is something we see more and more in the coming years.

2) Optimised efficiency and precision with robotic technology 

1985 was the year the first successful robotic surgery took place, with the PUMA 560 robotic surgical arm augmenting precision for a delicate neurosurgical procedure. By the 21st century, robotic surgery broke new ground with the da Vinci Surgery System, the first ever FDA-approved digital device incorporating “weak AI” into an all-encompassing system that offers patients minimally invasive surgical options; and HCPs enhanced vision, precision and control.

Most recently, the first ever tele-manipulated, retinal surgery was published in Nature in 2018, whereby surgeons made use of specialized digital devices to perform surgery from a remote location. It’s undoubtedly still early days, but I can only imagine the potential impact tele-surgery could have on patient accessibility if patients and surgeons were no longer even required to be in the same room for a procedure.

3) The generation and acquisition of big data 

One of the most remarkable influences on healthcare has been the ability to collect and store data in a way that was never possible before electronic records and smart technology. Thanks to advances in data-collection technologies, data storage is predicted to skyrocket ten-fold since 2013 into yottabyte proportions by the end of 2019. What’s more incredible is that a third of this data is thought to be generated from the healthcare industry alone.

This substantial amount of data has already shown its worth in our healthcare systems, improving not only hospital costs and efficiencies, but supporting HCP decision-making and patient outcomes. At Janssen we have developed HONEUR (Haematology Outcomes Network in Europe) and cross-industry EHDEN (European Health Data and Evidence Network) projects, which are working to safely pseudonymise confidential data from any source or institution, allowing productive analysis of a massive and diverse data pool.

The biggest obstacle we currently face in this area is the isolated nature of the data we collect. As it is currently done on a relatively small scale, we don’t yet have the systems in place to truly integrate this data and see the real benefits big data could bring.

4) AI and algorithmic medicine

With apps like Babylon Health redefining the doctor-patient consultation, improving patient access to healthcare, and relieving the immense burden on healthcare systems, the use of AI is most certainly on the rise in healthcare. To this end, Janssen has partnered with IBM Watson, whose goal it is to find the best ways to bring AI and other technologies to the front line and assist medical and healthcare professionals.

Among other big tech companies, Google have helped pave the way in AI-based healthcare solutions, making use of emerging smart technologies to analyse big datasets and extract insights that can improve healthcare outcomes. Google AI recently published their work in Nature, where they focused on the analysis of electronic health records to predict hospital outcomes, with the aim of gaining insights that can improve the quality of care provided to patients. Undeniably, AI has opened doors that were held firmly shut before the digital era.

5) Accelerated drug discovery

Typically, the development of new medicines can take anywhere from 10–20 years. With the latest technology, digital healthcare can analyse data virtually instantaneously, and this has the potential to help us identify possible drug candidates and perform testing for efficacy with both speed and precision beyond human capabilities.

At Janssen we have collaborated with key players in the AI-driven drug discovery industry including BenevolentAI, a scientific data mining company that combines the power of computational medicine and advanced AI with the principles of open systems and cloud computing to transform the way medicines are designed, developed and tested.

6) Enhanced disease prevention

Prioritising prevention over cure has never been more clinically relevant to research than it is today. With the help of advanced technology and smart AI, we’re able to predict the likelihood of disease onset more accurately than ever before, which is why we at Janssen have invested in a dedicated Prevention Center, which focuses solely on using these insights to develop innovative measures to stop disease before it ever happens. I am confident one day preventative medicine will overtake the reactive medicine we currently practice, and I couldn’t be prouder to be part of a company that is working to make that a reality.

7) Superior diagnostic capabilities

The ultimate goal of every healthcare practitioner is to get patients diagnosed, treated and on their way to recovery as fast and efficiently as possible. Digital healthcare has the potential to optimise this process by applying the most advanced technologies we have to offer to instantly analyse test results, determine the optimal treatment options, and ensure every patient gets the urgent care they require as soon as possible. This technology is already a reality, with advances such as Google’s AI-driven DeepMind Health, a collaboration with healthcare practitioners, researchers, patients and pharma companies like us to build algorithms into neural networks that function to imitate the human brain.

8) Precision treatment and tailored medicine

Digital healthcare is redefining the way we treat patients through the development of technology that enables us to immediately select for therapies that are more likely to suit a patient’s unique genetic make-up. Not only does this optimise healthcare costs and reduce hospital readmissions, but it also improves the likelihood of a positive patient outcome. I am proud of the fact that Janssen is leading the way in this area of research – from the development of specialised tests that can detect the presence of genomic abnormalities associated with prostate cancer, to our work with BiomX in the development of a microbiome-based biomarker discovery platform to identify responders to key inflammatory bowel disease therapeutics.

9) Enhanced decision-making support for HCP

Through an interconnected system of assistive devices and smart applications, HCPs are not only empowered with enhanced medical precision, but they are also equipped with the insights necessary to make better, more informed decisions for their patients. At Janssen, we have partnered with WinterLight Labs to combine their speech-based smart technology with our vast database and expertise, to create an algorithm that can predict dementia and other neurodegenerative disorders by monitoring the linguistic diversity of patients. Our goal is to use this technology to support HCPs in key decisions that we hope will benefit the care of patients in the long-term.

10) Improved patient outcomes 

With unprecedented access to healthcare information, and apps like Sensely’s Molly enabling patients to monitor their health in between doctor-patient consultations, the digital revolution has truly empowered patients to play a more assertive role in their own healthcare.

As a company we have a responsibility to really understand the impact and success of our medicines and this means going beyond the pill to look at the whole patient experience. Digital applications like Apple’s ECG app are just one example of this, where we have collaborated with Apple to develop an atrial fibrillation application that monitors a patients’ heartrate for irregular rhythms that could be indicative of an impending stroke.

In doing so, patients are alerted to health risks before they even begin to feel their effects, empowering them with the information necessary to take control of their health like never before.

While the rapid emergence of digital health is truly staggering, what’s more exciting is the immense potential it has yet to reach. Today we’re talking about the potential of AI, but in 20 years’ time, I believe that all companies will be AI-equipped in some way. Undeniably, digital healthcare is positioning itself as the new standard of care across healthcare systems, and I for one, couldn’t be more excited about what the future has in store.

About the author

Kris Sterkens has been the Company Group Chairman of Janssen EMEA since June 2017, returning to his home country, Belgium after spending over three years in Singapore where he was Company Group Chairman of Janssen Asia Pacific. Kris has a background in economics and financial management and was Vice President, Finance and Chief Financial Officer for Janssen EMEA before he moved to general management. Kris has been with Janssen for almost 30 years.