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Where Does Healthtech Meet Sustainability in 2023?

Oct 19, 2022 • 7 min

Healthtech has long been one of the main spaces for innovation, with the Covid-19 pandemic accelerating developments in this area even more. Where does sustainability fit in this picture?

As big fans of sustainability and also as the possessors of, we dare say, quite an extensive healthtech & IoT portfolio at Wolfpack Digital, we thought it interesting to examine this intersection as we look towards the future, which will most probably be marked by both the upcoming recession and the need to optimize medical processes and be mindful of energy-consumption, given the rising costs. 

Context and Trends

The main trends for the next years for health technology seem to focus around using Extended Reality (especially for surgeries), the continuous use of AI and machine learning (to leverage expert knowledge and offer increased accessibility to premium diagnosis capabilities), creating new telemedicine solutions and improving the existing ones, offering personalized treatments based on patient profiles and the use of smart algorithms, and the use of edge computing. The Internet of Things (IoT), or the Internet of Medical Things (IoMT), is a key example of edge computing, where we especially take advantage of the enhanced device capabilities of mobile devices and 5G to handle data closer to the data source - more on that as you read on.

In parallel, healthcare leaders are rapidly prioritizing environmental sustainability, as shown in a 2022 report published by Philips, with their numbers jumping from 4% being preoccupied with the theme in 2021 to 24% in 2022. Government initiatives in the US, such as the “Action Collaborative on Decarbonizing the US Health Sector”, also support this.

Sustainability-wise, according to the set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set in 2015 by the United Nations General Assembly, which are intended to be achieved by 2030 and have the mission of providing “a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future”, some of the sustainable development goals are to:

  • Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages
  • Reduce inequality within and among countries
  • Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns
  • Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts
  • Achieve gender equality and empower women and girls

Applying these goals could generate USD 12 trillion each year in market opportunities, according to the Business and Sustainable Development Commission. 

How can digital health systems contribute to these key global goals? 

Here is how healthtech meets sustainability in 2023:

1. Edge Computing and New Technologies

Edge computing is done near a data source, minimizing the need for the data to be processed in a remote place. IoT, and, specifically, IoMT, are top tech use cases in the healthcare industry.     
An example of edge computing is having a wearable skin conductivity and heart rate monitoring device connected to the end user’s skin and having this medical device communicate with the user’s mobile phone via Bluetooth, which is a personal communications protocol. The incoming data is stored and processed on the smartphone via a mobile app. If and only if the app detects abnormal levels in the values registered via the sensors, it notifies the cloud server about the issue and the doctor is further notified about the problem. By moving the processing closer to the end user, data traveling distance is reduced for most cases, since data only travels to the cloud in the less likely event of an abnormal level detection, thus making the running of the application more energy-efficient.

The exponentially increasing amounts of data to be processed using high-complexity computational models (AI, ML) in healthcare tech and the need to analyze data quickly (take robotic-assisted surgery, for example), together with the growing processing power of hardware (wearables, mobile devices etc.), makes edge computing more attractive, while reducing carbon footprint. As data gets processed closer to the source in edge computing, it reduces latency and allows higher performance. Furthermore, renewable energy sources (solar, wind power) can be used for data centers. There is also a big advantage in terms of data privacy and security, as the storing and processing of patient data are performed closer to the end user, making cloud-located/centralized data center security threats potentially less damaging in terms of data leaks. 

It’s safe to say that this technology contributes to more “sustainable consumption and production patterns”, in line with the UN's SDGs. ✅ 

2. Digitalization, Electronic Health Records, and Telemedicine

Direct, measurable KPIs can be set to monitor how medtech helps save massive amounts of paper via digitalization, while also reducing the carbon footprint significantly by offering telemedicine solutions that reduce or eliminate patient travel time.

This is especially interesting for developing countries, as we can even envision probable scenarios where these countries can take shortcuts in health service technologies, by jumping directly from paper-based patient management to edge-computing and cloud-based solutions, without going through the local data center silo phase, which is known to be more energy inefficient and harder to maintain. In fact, an Amazon Web Services study says that 84% less power is consumed when customers use large, centralized cloud-based data centers instead of on-premises infrastructure.

Looking at telemedicine, expert knowledge is now accessible from afar, and patients needn’t travel extensively for appointments halfway around the world, in the case of rare diseases, or not even in their own cities, by some accounts having the potential to reduce the CO2 emissions involved in patient transportation by almost half. 

Virtual consultations for diagnosis, treatment, and aftercare can cut down the carbon burden the health system carries as a whole: currently, hospitals produce more than 2.5 times the CO2 corresponding to commercial users of the same size. The NHS in the UK set out to be carbon neutral by 2045 and is currently working on decarbonizing its supply chain, which currently accounts for 60% of its greenhouse gas emissions, which in turn constitute 5% of the UK’s total carbon emissions. This is where health apps can contribute tremendously, and eliminating patient transportation when possible makes a huge impact. 

Additionally, not being limited by physical travel constraints when accessing top-notch expertise reduces the “inequalities between countries”, which aligns with the SDGs set by the UN, while ensuring “health and well-being for all at all ages”. ✅ 

As an example of both telemedicine and edge computing, take a look at the amazing work done by the Danish innovators at BrainCapture and their IoT solution for diagnosing epilepsy anywhere in the world, including remote areas, which democratizes access to medical expertise in developing countries - by using an affordable electrode cap and a smartphone, which then connects to the cloud.

Digitalization and making medtech systems smarter can also help prolong the lifetime of medical equipment and reduce the energy consumed for various updates, which, with new technology, can be performed remotely, even automatically (predictive maintenance is becoming more widely used), thus saving time and effort and ensuring the best results for patient scans by the deployment of cutting-edge medical techniques. Digital and virtual tools help provide very high-quality care with minimum material input.

3. Wellbeing, Chronic Condition Management, and After-Care Digital Products

Going beyond acute condition diagnosis and treatment, sustainability in health is all about using resources mindfully and minimizing waste, avoiding excesses, etc., when looking at the big picture too. In this sense, it’s worth discussing the recent increased focus on bringing digital products and apps to the market which focus on prevention, healthy lifestyles, a holistic and personalized approach to one’s health, plus the recent interest in designing and coding health apps supporting patients with after-care or managing their chronic conditions in the long-term.

By looking at the entire health cycle involved in a person’s care, prevention is becoming increasingly important. Leading a healthy lifestyle is greatly aided by apps for healthy eating, mental health habits, sleep tracking, or for supporting other positive behavioral transformations, which are scientifically proven to reduce the risk of illness, therefore translating into better overall public health, reduced medical care costs and a lower carbon footprint of the health system. 

The same is valid for after-care and managing chronic diseases in the long run, with some apps even being certified as Medical Devices, according to the IEC62304 standard, without having actual medical equipment attached to them, in a way that the app on the smartphone represents the medical device. Other apps are here to help provide access to an online community and the much-needed feelings of an emotional connection for patients. All these magnificent benefits are achieved while reducing the resources needed for care in the long run via digital tools versus traditional methods.

Have a look at Risolve, an app belonging to the National University of Ireland Galway, aimed at patients with overactive bladder to help them manage their condition better via exercises, with fantastic reviews from users.

Last but not least, health mobile and web apps can help girls and women worldwide, in accordance with the UN’s goals for global sustainability, feel empowered and achieve gender equality, by increasing access to health information and accessibility to healthcare services. The multitude of free apps helping with menstrual cycle and fertility window tracking is just a small example in this sense. ✅

All in all, sustainability is actionable, yet, at the same time, it requires a certain deeply-ingrained mindset, which then translates into all areas of how a digital product gets built. This means that even the UX/UI of a product can be approached in a mindful way such that the user’s attention is not wasted or abused, by using ethical design principles. Additionally, the Sustainable Business Model Canvas is an excellent tool for startups and scaleups alike, as is using Agile and the Lean Startup principles to reduce waste.

Closing Thoughts

Digital health systems built sustainably can actually bring new business opportunities in emerging markets and reduce costs in the long run, while providing quality care to patients. Focus on circularity, setting business KPIs for environmental sustainability, developing healthtech apps the lean way, following the Sustainable Business Model Canvas to design digital products, etc. are all ways to contribute to the global sustainability goals. The effort needs to be a coordinated one, all the way from medical services providers, health organizations, governing bodies, tech innovators, and suppliers to patients and medical practitioners. Edge computing, telemedicine, digitalization, and holistic approaches, including prevention, wellbeing, disease management, and aftercare are all factors that contribute to sustainability.

At Wolfpack Digital we’ve designed & built more than 10 health apps so far, and we love nature and are committed to a sustainable mindset through our lean product development processes and business practices. Actually, we are named by Clutch as one of the Top 100 B2B Service Providers for 2022 for Sustained Growth, out of 100k+ companies. Interested in building a healthtech app sustainably with us? Do get in touch with us and say hi, and we’ll be happy to “Awoooo!” together. 

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