How COVID-19 transformed the industry & the health tech innovations changing the world for the better.
Whether it’s the tracking your run on Strava, checking into the NHS Track and Trace app or booking GP appointments online, more of us than ever are embracing health tech — and enjoying the benefits of using it.
There are now over 350,000m health apps, including medical and fitness apps, available to download across major apps stores. It’s a figure that has doubled since 2015 as a result of smartphone ownership and investment in the market. Meanwhile at surgeries, 90% of physicians use smartphones while at work, where apps and services have made it possible for devices to become a valuable clinical tool.
We’ve explored some of the latest insights and trends in health tech and spoken to industry leaders and thinkers to find out more about this exciting space — and the way it’s transforming our everyday lives.
A changed world
Health tech, as an industry, isn’t new. Mobile health apps and services have been used for many years; GPS fitness trackers like Runkeeper and Strava launched as early as 2008 and 2009. While in 2015 the industry as a whole was valued at $72 trillion in the United States alone.
But if the industry was growing over the past decade, the pandemic served as a huge accelerant. Stuck at home in lockdown, with health being the central focus of the everyday news at a global scale, many turned to their smartphones to take back some semblance of control — while others used apps to compensate for closed gyms and broken routines. During 2020 at the height of the pandemic, the download rate of health and fitness apps almost doubled at 46% across the world. In the US, there were 8.6 million installations of the mindfulness app Calm during the first half of 2020, while in the same period there were 4.8 million downloads of Fitbit.
Outside of the home, governments and organisations raced to find ways to manage the pandemic through tech solutions. The most notable of these in the UK was the NHS COVID-19 app. The first phase of the app, commissioned in March 2020, was developed by Pivotal — a division of the American software company VMware.
Following its rejection and cancellation in June 2020 due to concerns around privacy and functionality, Zühlke Engineering was tasked with phase two. With a headquarters in Zurich and divisions around the world, the company has over 30 years experience as innovators in medical devices and health tech.
A team of 70 Zühlke engineers worked around the clock over 12 weeks in order to deliver and launch the app in late September 2020. Downloaded 21.6million times over 2020, it’s been recently reported that the NHS COVID-19 app built by Zühlke saved up to 13,500 lives and averted over 600,000 Covid cases in its first three month alone. We spoke to Wolfgang Emmerich, CEO of Zühlke Engineering about the app’s launch and evolution.
“We were surprised by the uptake we received; having launched the app in September, we rapidly reached 10-15 million users within a couple of days,” says Emmerich. “The app has been through a constant evolution since then in response to policy and technological changes and the current situation. When the Alpha variant emerged, for example, we changed the sensitivity of the exposure notification detection. We had to build in self-isolation payment features into the app to help support those who couldn’t afford to self isolate.”
He adds: “In total, we’ve had about 170-180 releases in the last year since the app launched.”
The NHS COVID-19 app has had twenty-eight-and-a-half million downloads, and was the second most downloaded app in the UK last year after Zoom.
Emmerich believes that the reason the UK iteration of the app was so successful when compared to similar ones in Europe was because of its functionality and features. “We built an app that people want to use,” says Emmerich. “There are personal benefits to using the app — we call them ‘You’ features as opposed to public health features. The ability to check in knowing that you could be reached without disclosing your private information, for example. It’s these features that drove the record take-off of the app that we had, that other countries on the continent didn’t.”
Increasing efficiency in organisations
A decade ago, it would be inconceivable that our GP interactions would be mostly remote (by April 2020 it was 90%) — or that we’d rely on on our smartphones to improve and track our health and wellbeing. The trend for apps as medical devices and our reliance on digital for interactions with GPs has certainly been accelerated by the pandemic — and is definitely here to stay.
Large-scale healthcare organisations around the world have embraced technology and new innovations too — utilising it to improve all aspects of their operations, from patient care through to staffing and medical data. The NHS is a world leader in its use of IT in primary care, while many innovators and private companies work towards new solutions to help support medical organisations, increase efficiencies and streamline processes for both staff and patients.
This past year, J B Cole partnered with Wythenshawe Hospital (part of Manchester University Hospital, NHS Foundation Trust) to develop, design and launch a web-based app as part of a larger pilot project. The platform allows the capture, analysis and real-time presentation of anonymous survey results related to patient experience within the lung cancer service — with the aim of improving patient experiences of cancer treatment through meaningful data.
Other recent innovations in health tech look to solve challenges outside the hospital setting. A great example is Dia — a female health and lifestyle companion app launched by TFP Fertility Group that seeks to empower women when it comes to their health.
Chakameh Shafii, Director of Digital at TFP Fertility Group, came up with the idea for Dia after reading the bestselling study, “Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men” by Caroline Criado-Perez. “This book made me realise how little I, other women and indeed the medical community and the broader world know about women’s bodies, and how little we are taken seriously due to the mystification surrounding them,” says Shafii. “The book put into plain context how harmful – deadly, in fact – this is for women around the world and how slow the change, particularly in the medical community, seems to be.”
In response, she created Dia. The app allows users to log how they feel, their sleep, energy levels, exercise, cramping, as well as numerous other daily metrics, and can be synced with Garmin and FitBit. Dia will then, after a few months of data, display this information against the user’s cycle, helping them to detect any patterns. Dia users also have access to personalised, medically-verified recommendations and readings as well as the in-app Fertility Forecast, which aims to enlighten women about their fertility and makes general recommendations based on their current family-planning options in a non-judgemental and pragmatic way.
“Dia was designed with women in mind,” says Shafii. “All the tracked data is mapped against the user’s menstrual cycle, something that most women have surprisingly little understanding of. Through working with TFP, we also see first-hand the impact of this when it comes to getting pregnant and starting a family. The personalised content is there to help women make better sense of the data and get actionable advice.”
What’s next in the world of health tech?
It’s undoubtedly a sector that’s going to keep expanding as more people integrate apps and digital solutions into their everyday lives. And expect some weird and wonderful innovations that come with it; toothbrushes that utilise blockchain technology already exist, as do wearables that shock you out of bed every morning. We’re really excited to engage in this space — and see just what comes out next.
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