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COVID-19 has created health care’s long-awaited digital moment

This article was originally published by the Toronto Star on August 18, 2020. 

 

Music CD sales peaked in 2000. For most music listeners, the polycarbonate plastic disc was replaced long ago by digital files and, ultimately, digital music services enabled by smartphones and cloud computing.

However, 20 years later, CDs remain the primary means by which hospitals and imaging clinics share medical imaging. To gain access to their CT, MRI or ultrasound images, patients must travel to the hospital or other imaging providers, wait in line and pay to have a physical CD burned.

This outmoded system was emblematic of many technologies within the health care industry, a sector with technology adoption cycles that appeared, at times, to border on inertia.

Then, in March, everything changed.

In response to COVID-19, health care is entering a phase of rapid digital transformation. In the case of medical imaging, systems reliant on physical CD distribution were disrupted when facilities stopped all non-essential visits.

Providers quickly sought digital alternatives. Toronto startup PocketHealth, a medical image access and sharing platform for patients, doctors and hospitals, offers a digital alternative to the CD. The company saw an immediate 300 per cent spike in demand in the first months of the pandemic (Disclosure: Radical Ventures is an investor).

Trends that we expected to play out over three to five years are now happening in real time. Health care is riding a wave of innovation, where novel digital applications and business models are rapidly becoming mainstream — and this expansion will continue until digital adoption in health care nears equilibrium with the consumer sector.

This acceleration of digitization and the resulting data generated from these applications is setting the foundation for yet another wave of health-care solutions where artificial intelligence (AI) is positioned to play a greater role.

We’re getting a preview of what this second wave of innovation might look like as the search for effective solutions to COVID-19 drives a new category of innovation.

London startup Benevolent. AI’s use of AI to identify existing drugs that may be effective in treating COVID-19 highlights how important this technology has become in the drug discovery process. With a capacity to extract patterns while combing through hundreds of millions of pieces of data, AI speeds up complex work that is well beyond human capability. Today, there are a number of startups with Canadian roots pursuing AI for drug discovery including Deep GenomicsCyclica and Atomwise.

It seems unlikely that patients or health-care providers will return to the past. Patients who experience benefits, such as time saved, reduced costs, and better outcomes during this period of experimentation, will not switch back. Similarly, health-care providers who reap the benefits of delivering better quality services and new therapeutics are unlikely to reverse course.

Ironically, the most disruptive health crisis in recent history has created the optimal conditions for a revolution in how we use technology to care for one another. Hospitals are done handing out CDs. And the future of digital health care is bright.

Author: Sanjana Basu.
Sanjana Basu is an investor at Radical Ventures, a Toronto-based venture capital firm investing in AI companies that will shape the future of business, health care, and infrastructure.