From the first use of X-ray machines to microscopes and modern radiotomograpfie, human medicine has always been concerned with the discovery and use of state-of-the-art technologies. Hardly surprisingly, health care innovation means potentially saving lives – and what could be more important?

It is thanks to this openness to innovations that hardly any other field is changing as quickly and comprehensively as medicine, medical research and medical technology are currently in the current stream of digital transformation. These changes not only affect the use of new diagnostic devices and improved data collection, but also lead to a complete rethinking of the entire industrypiece by piece: a new, digital self-image is taking hold.

Why digitalization and medical technology are a dream couple

Let us think of digitization,most people think of digitized services or robots in industrial manufacturing first; in fact, it is medical technology that in many respects is even more predestined for digital transformation than other industries. Four key features of the industry make them so attractive for digitalization efforts:

First, it has a thirst for data that easily eclipses other industries: compared to the amount of data that lurks in the data lakes of the big pharmaceutical companies, even the BI departments of the largest companies look like a half-full floppy disk. Intensive data collection is an inevitable consequence of the scientific working method in medical research. Accordingly, there is great potential for digital knowledge management and AI-based data preparation to increase.

In addition to its data wealth, medical technology also has a huge digitization potential due to its natural interconnectivity. As an interface of various people (patients, doctors, nurses, technicians, entrepreneurs…) and business fields (research, care, medicine, wellness…) with the highest degree of networking, medical technology is a field that benefits from all four aspects of digitalization: business process, business model, domain and culture transformation. Digital transformation is primarily a social phenomenon (which is driven by digitalization – i.e. the purely technical aspect defined for it) and falls accordingly on fertile ground in an industry with a high social component such as medicine.

In direct comparison with other industries, medicine also has a higher potential for improvement and new insights. Put simply, we know relatively little about the human body, objectively speaking. While we have made massive progress in understanding how it works, the human brain, for example, remains largely an absolute mystery. In many respects, we are also at the very beginning of research into the causes of the disease. An innovative breakthrough is therefore easier and faster, simply because “there is still so much to do”. The situation is quite different, for example, in industry, where materials and processes have already been optimised to the maximum possible extent. A successfully tested new drug can easily be several hundred percent more effective than its predecessors; if a new smartphone battery achieves 1% more power compared to this, this is already a huge success.

Another easy-to-understand reason for the high digitalization speed of the industry is simply its size: with more than 420 billion dollars per year and rapid growth (up to 600 billion dollars are expected in 2025), the world market for medical technology is a worthwhile place for digital working methods. The resulting increases in efficiency, flexibility and speed would be more than clearly reflected in the figures of companies. If the profit margins increase due to internal improvements, as promised by the Digital Transformation, the financial benefits depend on sales.

What concrete changes does digitalization bring about in medical technology?

The medical world is increasingly transforming itself into on-demand healthcare. Ubiquitous mobility as a social phenomenon is also changing the way we experience and use medical care. The medical offers are always visible and comparable on the smartphone and where in the past it was often not even common to get a second medical opinion, today performances and prices are compared in seconds and even testimonials are studied.

As early as 2017, respondents to a study indicated that

  • Find your doctors online and select them in advance
  • 38% research hospitals and clinics online
  • 77% book health appointments online

Another effect of the on-demand economy is that service providers are also more flexible and mobile today than was previously the case. The trend is moving away from one’s own practice and towards clinics and other facilities that are visited by the respective specialists depending on the demand. The healthcare professionals are no longer dependent on a long-term contractual relationship with medical facilities, but can market their know-how directly and flexibly to patients. The effect is a demand-oriented distribution of medical care.

An important innovation in the medical sector is also the extensive use of big data solutions. By interactively matching patient information with existing databases, for example, possible treatment errors – human error is the cause of half of all medical complications – can be detected and avoided by appropriate warnings.

In addition, it is possible to create highly granular medical records by using large amounts of data, which could even include DNA in perspective. What is a nightmare for data protectors, doctors bring to the fore in the face of unimaginable possibilities in diagnosis and treatment. The evaluation of such information could take place on a global scale and represent an unimaginable leap in treatment options and successes. Cancer therapy, for example, is already benefiting – albeit on a much smaller scale – from the findings gained from the analysis of large amounts of patient data. Data-based oncology is already the de facto standard today, thanks to its high-quality results. It is therefore not surprising that medical technology is one of the industries most closely linked to blockchain technologies. Medical data would thus become more secure, faster and available with verifiable correctness.

The triumph of wearables is also a direct impact of medical digitization. Fitbits & Co. are found on more and more wrists and offer the owner an insight into the personal condition, demonstrate the effects of lifestyle habits and give tips for increasing well-being. The effects are reflected in the better health of wearers – wearables have been shown to make us live healthier lives.

The data resulting from the devices is used to develop deep insights into the human body and to develop campaigns that are all too readily used by health insurers and health boards. Such a broad and statistically significant data base on the state of health of the population has never been available before. The incentivization of positive behavior by the health insurance companies is another popular means to make meaningful use of the newly acquired data.

The added value of the devices comes not only from the availability of the data: the Fitbit’s statement that you have taken 10,000 steps today is worthless if it is not put into context. Additional information on benchmarks and recommendations for action create lasting positive health effects, and the entertaining nature of many of these applications also incentivises healthier behavior. Although not a medical product in the true sense, here is the positive gamification effect of the “Pokemon Go” game, which a few years ago was able to encourage thousands of young people around the world to walk several kilometers a day.

In the long list of possible applications of digital technologies, the extremely extensive topic of artificial intelligence is mentioned: On the one hand, thanks to more precise and in the amount of ever-growing health data, a field of unimagined possibilities for the use of machine learning arises here. Gone are the days when patients with the same disease received the same therapy and it was hoped that it would work equally well. The differences in predisposition, lifestyle, environment, history, etc. are simply too great to justify such extremely rough treatments when there is an alternative. Modern algorithms allow drugs and methods to be personalised down to the smallest detail. Highest efficiency and lower load thanks to tailor-made ingredients are the result.

On the other hand, the use of AI is also being promoted in medical research, as the effect is particularly evident here: artificial intelligence has shortened the development cycle for drugs by 4 years and reduced development costs by up to 60%.

Because the neck of the bottle is usually in the identification of the right substance to fight a disease trigger (usually a protein). Testing various components for their effectiveness has already been dramatically accelerated. The production of a promising drug became much easier and faster. Since very few substances ever reach market maturity – less than 5% – medical research is a science in which failure is the standard. Thanks to artificial intelligence, however, valuable information can be extracted from this regular failure, which is invaluable for future experiments and the further development of aI itself. Thanks to AI, it is possible for the first time to use the wealth of knowledge of decades of research results that are dusted in drawers around the world for each project.

It is hardly surprising that hundreds of start-up companies are active in this area and that the large pharmaceutical companies are also investing on a large scale.

What do these changes mean for patients?

The digitalization of medical technology is largely a boon for patients. You benefit greatly from the comprehensive personalization of treatment methods and better availability resulting from efficiency gains and better communication. In addition, completely new offers are being created for them: for example, the therapy of chronic pain through the use of virtual reality glasses is possible. The first results of this new treatment encourage people around the world and offer them the prospect of a life without painkillers.

Digital transformation also offers an improvement in the usual treatment methods for mental illness: Finding a therapist and the treatment itself can now take place digitally, through the services of corresponding apps. This development can offer much-needed help to those affected, especially in a country such as Germany, which is still stuck in dealing with mental illness for about 100 years in the past. In addition, millions of people worldwide are already benefiting from the effects of meditation and wellness apps.

Digital transformation also offers an improvement in the usual treatment methods for mental illness: Finding a therapist and the treatment itself can now take place digitally, through the services of corresponding apps. This development can offer much-needed help to those affected, especially in a country such as Germany, which is still stuck in dealing with mental illness for about 100 years in the past. In addition, millions of people worldwide are already benefiting from the effects of meditation and wellness apps.

Dangers arise especially for data protection, because since data is the most valuable asset of a modern company, the collective rage is often greater than security. And since this can be about highly sensitive, personal data, the demands are correspondingly higher. The damage if my Spotify playlist were released by a data leak is manageable. If, on the other hand, the future employer could gain insight into my patient file during the application process and reject me due to chronic illnesses, the breach of trust is many times more problematic.

People without appropriate “digital affinity” or access to appropriate devices, such as the elderly or economically weak families, can also suffer from medical digitization. Automated scheduling by a chatbot with simultaneous anamnesis may seem like a good idea at first glance. However, if the traditional telephone appointment is reduced in succession, access will be made more difficult for people who rely on this communication route.

How is the industry changing from the point of view of the busy?

Medical staff, technicians and entrepreneurs are suddenly confronted with empowered customers – a doctor whose tone of interaction causes displeasure among patients may notice a decline in visitors, as his misdeeds can now be read on the Internet. A pharmaceutical company that is making headlines for its lack of environmental protection will find that large parts of its sales are migrating to the competing product… patients are fully connected, well informed and know exactly what they want. It goes without saying that this is not always easy for the people at the other end of the stethoscope.

For the employees, the Digitization itself often represents a diffuse scenario of terror: fears about one’s own feasibility, the compulsion to be constantly accessible and over-work, or concern about the continued existence of the company are mixed with the negative connotation with which the terms around digital transformation in German are already documented. It is therefore not surprising that one of the most important findings from the early years of digitalization measures was the enormous importance of empathic communication within companies.

However, there are also clearly positive aspects of medical digitization: due to the drastically reduced administrative burden, for example, there is more time for the essential – the care of patients. With less time, which has to be used for scheduling, shift schedules or inventory planning, for example. The easier availability of medical information is also a boon for service providers, who have so far been held back by bureaucratic hurdles. In this way, recommendations for action, best practices and research results can be retrieved easily and uncomplicatedly and thus support the medical work. New technologies can also effectively address seemingly simple problems such as language barriers.

There are also advantages for companies that belong to the medical field but do not have patient contact: the improved feedback and simplified data that comes with a digital transformation facilitate personal work.

And, of course, the general, industry-independent benefits of a digital way of working apply, such as more fun at work thanks to reduced bureaucracy, better work-life balance thanks to more efficient working methods, etc.

How does digitalization work in medicine?

In almost all cases, the “starting shot” for the digital transformation of a medical company is a change in the handling of data. Data-driven and evidence-based decision-making requires a corresponding big data foundation. Experience from the UK, for example, shows that decentralized processing of patient data in a blockchain would be ideal, but for various reasons will remain a pipe dream for the foreseeable future. Nevertheless, it is essential for a company’s digital strategy to understand and exploit the value of data.

As you can imagine, this data focus places the highest demands on your security concept. Data security is an absolute priority and should be designed by experts. It is not only from a legal point of view that a data leak is catastrophic; the consequences are devastating for the trust of your customers. So never rest on the security of your data warehouse; Like many other aspects of digital transformation, your security concept is constantly changing and must constantly adapt to changing threat situations. In addition to the technical facets, your data protection strategy should also include aspects such as communication in the “case-by-case” and raising awareness of the data handling of your employees.

On the basis of this data, digitalisation can then be carried out by new technologies in the second step in order to achieve positive changes in the way in which we work and achieve results. For this purpose, the early development of know-how in the field of artificial intelligence is recommended, as this knowledge will sooner or later have to be purchased expensively. Due to the exponential effects of machine learning use in the BI environment, companies achieve decisive competitive advantages. To translate the gain of knowledge into concrete and worthwhile recommendations for action is often the hardest part. The key figure analysis can reveal potentials and problems, the solutions of which are subsequently validated by tests using artificial intelligence. In practice, however, it is particularly difficult to get these solutions to the stage of implementation, especially in the start-up phase – do not be discouraged by this; the positive developments will reinforce each other at a later stage and justify the initial thirst.

However, digital transformation is not an IT strategy paper in which it is sufficient to tick off enough points to be able to write “Digital” in the company’s biography. The primary changes arise from the company’s self-image and changing communication and working methods. This never-ending process presents people with difficult changes, regardless of position or industry. Therefore, the use of modern digital technologies is only a catalyst on the way to real transformation.
An important indicator of this new way of working is the speed of implementation for innovations – whether technical or business nature. Did it take middle management 6 months to agree on a new data protection strategy? Despite modern communication tools and data management software, a department has not been able to establish resilience even after weeks? These indications suggest that it is not technical aspects that stand in the way of digitisation, but cultural ones. Don’t underestimate the power your processes and structures wield on corporate identity. Older employees, for example, have become accustomed to workflows for decades and often tend to critically question changes to the same. Give them the good feeling that their concerns are being heard and you secure their long-term support.

It is no shame to admit that a cultural change in the company is necessary before digitalisation.

All characters are on “Digital”

Digitization offers countless possibilities for medical technology – even more so than for most other industries. So be prepared for profound changes. It is true that it certainly does not harm to be sceptical about these innovations; However, there is no place for fear of the future, because the potential clearly outweighs the dangers.

Recognize the importance of data as a valuable asset, never save on your security concept, and be sure to take employees and your corporate culture on the path to digital transformation through empathetic communication. Then nothing stands in the way of your lasting success.