Juliana Chan and Dan Paris take a look at the healthcare sector’s digital future, and the technologies that will help us access it.

Digital strategy in healthcare marketing

This article is part of a series of articles on digital strategy in healthcare marketing. Read more.

As we hurtle towards the end of another decade, one can’t help but reflect on the incredible changes that technology has had on society. In a span of ten years we have become tethered to our mobile devices, changing how we access dozens of services, among them, healthcare – which is moving ever faster toward being digitally delivered.

While this trend is by no means universal, there are digital initiatives throughout the world that are shedding light on the future of healthcare, and even the role it will play in the marketing ecosystem, beyond the healthcare sector itself. Below are examples of how we see this playing out, as governmental programs, healthcare services, and brands pursue initiatives – often powered by artificial intelligence (AI) – that will transform healthcare over the next decade.

Digital provides DIY approaches to health

Governments everywhere are bracing against what has been dubbed a ‘silver tsunami’ – a rapidly rising population of elderly citizens as baby boomers reach their senior years. As the global population becomes more gentrified and urban in its profile, governments are among those using technology to enhance the core services they provide to their citizens, particularly in areas such as healthcare.

Building better health habits: In 2019, Singapore’s Health Promotion Board launched a new collaboration with US fitness wearables company Fitbit, called Live Healthy SG. (Google announced plans to buy Fitbit for US$2.1 billion in November.) For an annual service fee of S$120 (US$88), users are regularly prompted to adopt better habits concerning sleep, nutrition and emotional wellbeing. For those who require more support, they can be guided on video workouts by a digital coach. The company anticipates that up to one million Singaporeans could sign up for the health tracker.

On-demand video consultation: On-demand consultations such as remote vital signs monitoring and tele-rehabilitation will allow healthcare resources to be allocated efficiently in areas where healthcare is not easily accessible. A new online platform launched by Integrated Health Information Systems, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Singapore’s MOH Holdings, allows doctors from public healthcare institutions to monitor patients virtually instead of doing so by traditional face-to-face appointments. Not only does it bring care into the home and reduce caregiver absence from work, it may be useful during a pandemic as fewer people will be exposed to communicable diseases.

Diagnosis-by-chatbot: AI technology has advanced so much that telehealth services such as diagnosis-by-chatbot may displace the need to pay a visit to the doctor’s clinic for every ache and twinge. Healthcare chatbots are already on the rise, with Your.MD in the UK and Sensely in the US among the first chatbot services to tap into a large database of anonymized clinical histories to make their own diagnoses.

Healthcare is everyone’s business

As governments drive this change, brands are also developing a sense of purpose in this new era of humanity. This is driving initiatives that simply would not have been possible until recently:

Democratizing design: IKEA’s recent ThisAbles campaign demonstrates the power companies can have in our lives by democratizing design. With the help of a home 3D printer, people with disabilities can independently produce furniture accessories that bridge some of the gaps between existing IKEA products and their special needs. The reaction to this initiative has been truly remarkable – what started as a program in Israel has grown into an open-source platform with downloads from over 127 countries at the time of writing. This spirit of using technology to democratize design won IKEA a coveted Grand Prix for Health and Wellness at the Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity in 2019. It also opened up a whole new commercial market to IKEA globally within a very short period of time.

Mitigating risk by driving good habits: Once just a source of financial products to safeguard against risks, insurance company Manulife Singapore has taken a proactive step to encourage healthy lifestyles among its policy holders. With its new initiative called ManulifeMOVE membership, members who achieve a daily average of 10,000 steps over a period of six months receive a cash payment of S$50 (US$36), which acts as a positive reinforcement for behavioral change. And this may well be the start of the financial services and insurance industries taking more responsibility in their relationship with their consumer base, by actively driving change in daily habits.

Gamifying healthcare training: In China, less than one percent of the population knows how to perform life-saving CPR. In 2019, in a corporate social responsibility project, Samsung introduced a gaming hack called ‘BACK2LIFE’ on a popular Chinese multiplayer online game, Blood River. The hack allows gamers to revive their characters if they ‘lose’ a life, by performing CPR with the help of simple instructions. The more virtual deaths in the game, the more CPR training the players received. In essence, it was a two-week training programme disguised as a game feature, a clever move that may inspire communications teams everywhere hoping to engage younger audiences.

The era of precision medicine is here

Just as data has allowed customization to gain force in marketing, personalized data in healthcare is ushering in the era of precision medicine, an emerging approach to patient care that allows doctors to select treatments or preventive care by taking into account individual variability in genes, environment and lifestyle. With just a patient’s saliva sample, companies can test for thousands of genetic variants – the presence or absence of some of these variants is associated with an increased risk for developing certain diseases.

23and(Medical)Me: In 2017, 23andMe became the first genomics company to receive US Food and Drug Administration approval for direct-to-consumer personal genetic tests for ten conditions, including Parkinson's, late-onset Alzheimer’s and celiac diseases.

Data and machine learning: As the number of use cases for AI has increased this decade, we only have to look at machine learning platforms like IBM Watson Health – and its ability to work with vast quantities of data – to see how medical professionals can make use of this immense potential in screening and diagnosis. Since the business unit was formed in 2015, IBM Watson’s AI has been trained to spot anomalies in health claims and to provide clinical decision-making support in cancer treatments and clinical trials.

And the winner is … us!

In the next decade, the winner of all these technological developments will clearly be the end user. This new reality will see every individual empowered to take ownership of their own health information – in some cases with just a mobile phone and internet access. They will also be able to receive healthcare services remotely, which is a boon in places where access to medical care remains limited.

Stepping into a new decade, we believe that a customised healthcare reality for every individual, accessible at any time through virtual means, will fast become a new reality we have always dreamed of.