Digitization of Healthcare

By: December 1, 2022

Modern healthcare has been going digital for over half a century. Beginning in the 1960s, companies, like Ross Perot’s EDS (Electric Data Systems) and Massachusetts based Meditech (privately held), started saving medical records on large computer memory storage systems. Today, pretty much all health records are digital.

Digitalization of healthcare is much broader than just storing medical records, however. The area of digital medical imaging has exploded in the past two decades.

Pathologists used to gain all their data from looking in the ocular of microscopes to draw their conclusions. Today, the images of interest to pathologists are recorded digitally and reviewed more effectively on large computer screens. Radiologists could always review life-sized X-ray images of their patients, but today these X-ray images are recorded as digital files. These can not only be easily viewed on large computer screens by a local radiologist, but sent to other radiologists for confirming opinions.

CAT (computer aided tomography) scans were tech from the digital age, so the image results were always saved as digital files. However, with ever cheaper digital memory storage and economical, high-speed computing, CAT scan results are now often made into highly accurate 3D models of segments of a patient’s body or organs.

The same is true of results collected using NMR (nuclear magnetic resonance) scans. In many cases, these 3D models are indispensable as practice aids for surgeons. It gives them a much better idea of what they might be up against before actually cutting into a new patient.

Moreover, these 3D digital models of people’s insides have enabled companies like Intuitive Surgical (NASDAQ: ISRG) to commercialize specialized surgical robots.

3D virtual models of a patient’s organs can aid with diagnosis and surgeries. (Source: itnonline.com)

Application of Artificial Intelligence to Healthcare

Combining digital imaging with artificial intelligence (AI) offers powerful risk mitigation for patients. Oncologists and pathologists have been collecting digital medical images of potential tumors, diseased cells, or cancers for decades now.

Most of the time, they correctly diagnose problems, but some small percentage of the time they make mistakes with either false positive or negative readings. Regardless, these images often go into large databases with associated data on the reality of the diagnosis.

AI algorithms are able to “read” and remember the digital medical images in these humongous databases and keep track of all the associated diagnoses, both correct and incorrect. The result is that pathologists and oncologists now often lean on AI for confirmation of their diagnosis.

Some reports indicate that AI has demonstrated a better track record at identifying abnormalities in cells than doctors. Regardless, the combination of the two mitigates risk for all of us.

Intel (Nasdaq: INTC) is one company that is involved with developing AI for improved predictive analytics. (Source: intel.com)

Precision Healthcare

Precision healthcare is an especially exciting MegaTrend sector. This component is all about customizing medicine for you, the individual. Everyone has different genes, microbiomes, and anatomies. That’s what makes us individuals.

However, until recently, most medical treatments used a one-size fits all strategy because it was too expensive historically to develop individual health treatments. With digitalization, this is changing rapidly.

Many of us use wearable medical recorders made by companies like Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) and Fitbit (acquired by Alphabet (NASDAQ: GOOGL)). Data from these devices are being made available to medical professionals who can use this data to better understand how various people’s bodies function best. Using this data, they can then efficiently tailor medical treatments to the individual.

Another example takes advantage of the latest DNA sequencing devices from companies like Illumina (NASDAQ: ILMN) and Thermo Fisher Scientific (NYSE: TMO). By using this DNA data to better understand an individual’s genes, medical professionals can better predict which diseases an individual is predisposed toward. This allows doctors to tailor regular medical screenings and checkups to match a particular patient’s susceptibility.

In conjunction with modern 3D printers, models can be used to print completely custom prosthetics and inserts. For instance, if a patient needs a hip replacement, a 3D virtual model of the patient’s femur and pelvis can be used to generate files that may then be used to 3D print the perfect insert for that patient.

3D printers offer customized prosthetics. (Source: eandt.theiet.org)

The Healthcare Megatrend

It’s amazing what humans are doing to protect or repair their health, but this is a healthcare evolution, not a revolution. That’s why it’s such a powerful MegaTrend.

Day after day, year after year, decade after decade, medical care becomes more sophisticated at almost every level. By digitizing aspects of healthcare, it makes prevention and treatments cheaper to develop and use. That means more people can have access.

That’s a very powerful virtuous circle for the best and brightest companies in their particular sectors, which we happen to own in our portfolios.

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