The history of medicine has seen particular, and often peculiar, paradigms ebb and wane with each passing era. The Ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamians believed magic to be medicine’s handmaiden, incorporating complex rituals into their healing practices. For the Greeks and Romans, balancing the humours was essential to the war on disease. Prayer became the only true medicine during the dark days of the middle ages, with plague and disease the scourge of sinners. Light once again returned in the Renaissance and Age of Enlightenment eras, when rationality and science became the true measures of medicine. By the 20th century our knowledge of medicine was advancing rapidly, with exciting drug and vaccine developments made, and arguably most importantly of all, the discovery of the antibiotic. Today major investment in antibiotic development has all but ground to a halt and the foreseeable 21st century looks set to be defined in medicinal terms by two major paradigms: the mapping of the human genome, and the marriage of technology with healthcare. With so many possibilities for technological innovations to change the way we discover, see, and utilise medicine, the race is on for the digital generation.
The convergence of the 21st century digital and genetics revolution has given birth to ‘Digital health’, a classification that covers a plethora of applications, technologies, devices, communications satellites, and drug delivery systems that have been developed during the convergence of life sciences with the digital revolution. All of these innovations have the capacity to advance and make medicine accessible in way our 20th century ancestors could never have imagined possible. Sub-specialties within digital health include telemedicine, mobile health (mhealth), ehealth, personal genomics, big data, and health IT. An entire health orientated world has been created in the digital realm in which providers and users can interact, and multiple solutions and tools are exchanged for managing healthcare. Today’s patients, who want their healthcare as accessible as their smartphones, can connect directly with physicians to identify medical solutions, improving quality and access. According to a FICO survey, as many as 80% of smartphone would like to utilize mobile applications for contacting healthcare providers. Other health-related uses of smartphones include fitness tracking, appointment reminders, health checks, medication prompts, medical and nutritional advice, education on health self-management issues, and the monitoring of personal health risks.
The digital health market is booming, with the worldwide mHealth market size forecast to be valued at US$14.5 billion in 2015. Consulting firm Rock Health found that just 143 companies dedicated to digital health earned US$2.3 billion in just one quarter of 2014. Companies not before associated with healthcare such as Google, Apple, Sony, and Samsung are investing millions in the development of platforms, applications, and devices connected to health. Deloitte recently published a study that found sales of smartwatches and similar devices, which have only very recently been released, reached 10 million units globally in 2014 and are predicted to grow tenfold by 2020. The capacity for these types of devices to play a major role in managing personal healthcare is huge. While significant progress has been in developed countries, the need for quality medical services, ageing populations, and socio-economic factors are driving the growth of mHealth in emerging markets too. Brazil, Russia, China, India, Malaysia, and Mexico are the most rapidly growing healthcare markets in the world, and many opportunities for the digital health business in these countries exist. Mexico is the top smartphone market in Latin America, with around 35 million people, a quarter of the population, using a smartphone.
In Mexico digital health has already been adopted in both private and public institutions. IMSS and ISSSTE have telemedicine services and are advanced in the creation of digital medical records. Also, the use of platforms and apps as fitness trackers, diet advisors, and medical monitors is growing in the country as Mexicans become more interested in managing their own healthcare. 1doc3, a Colombian platform in which patients can ask for professional medical advice online, is rapidly positioning itself as a leader for free online consultations in Latin America, and is tapping in to the Mexican market. Today 35% of the online consultations are requested from Mexican, and 40 Mexican physicians provide online medical orientation. Javier Cardona, CEO of 1doc3, has now announced plans to expand and consolidate in Mexico. Mexican-based entrepreneurs are aware of the opportunities. Jorge Becerril, CEO of growing health provider Oximed, explained his launch of a new digital healthcare application developed in collaboration with scientific researchers, that will help users suffering from diseases like diabetes and obesity to track and monitor health goals. Such applications have the potential to help address Mexico’s serious diabetes crisis, which is stretching the traditional healthcare system to its limited, by assisting sufferers with the management and understanding of their own health needs.
Contemporary social problems can also be aided by the adoption of digital health in developing countries by helping improve access to rural populations where trained professionals and resources are minimal. The World Health Organization (WHO) reported a serious lack of doctors and nurses in 57 countries worldwide in 2011. As communication systems improve, digital health can be adopted to services such countries with very positive outcomes. Some real-life examples are the provision of health information to pregnant women and for postnatal and baby care by the WHO through mobile phones, transmission of AIDS testing results via mobile phone, and children learning about health and hygiene through a hotlines, and mobile phone apps developed specifically for remote communities. In Mexico, volunteers for Partners in Health visit rural communities in Chiapas to identify patients with chronic diseases. They utilize tablets and an application called CommCare to store patients’ data, reducing errors and visit duration, in turn allowing for more effective follow-ups.
Many promising and hereto unimagined developments remain to be made in the field of digital health. In the coming years health services and providers will increasingly rely on mobile applications, and over the next decades a complete convergence of healthcare and technology will take place. Just as today a world without electric power seems unimaginable, tomorrow we will see digital technology through the same dependent lenses. While Mexico’s journey to complete digital integration may be slightly behind its Northerly developed neighbor, digital health may well be the best tool the country can adopt to help it reach its challenging universal healthcare goal.