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Delivering an efficient and affordable healthcare model

Ireland is at the forefront of the digital health revolution

Healthcare has gone beyond the tablet and the scalpel, harnessing the power of technology to bring the hospital into the home and ensure better outcomes for patients, wherever they happen to be.

Ireland is at the forefront of the digital health revolution, having stealthily built up a thriving digital health sector, which operates at the intersection between our thriving IT, medtech and pharma industries. And the steady march of digital health solutions has progressed to something of a canter given the inherent need for telehealth and remote monitoring over the past 12 months. It's no surprise that the global digital health market is forecast to grow by 37 per cent this year alone and to reach over $500 billion (€426.5bn) by 2027.

According to David Byrne, manager, digital technologies, with Enterprise Ireland, the Covid-19 pandemic may have given digital health a shot in the arm, but there are a number of companies who have been plugging away in this space for some time. He says that digital health is "blossoming".

“There have been a number of players in digital health for quite a while but the broader global phenomenon in digital health has been driven by the convergence of a number of elements,” Byrne says. “Medtech, pharma and healthcare are figuring out their synergies, while the recognition of the value to be obtained from data harnessing has helped. In addition, data analysis can show the potential impact of a digital product or device, meaning the benefit per dollar spent is much more visible.”

The recent acceleration of the sector has been driven not only by the high adoption rate with younger people, but also as a result of Covid-19 and the pandemic environment. “People are now more used to and more confident in using digital channels out of necessity,” Byrne notes.

Exciting time

Manuela Savini is marketing manager with Total Digital Ltd, which works with SMEs who are taking the first steps into digital transformation, as well as tech pioneers who are developing innovative digital healthcare solutions. She says it's an exciting time to partner with companies in this sector, each of whom are on a mission to make healthcare "more accessible, inclusive and efficient".

Her belief is that the future of healthcare will be increasingly digitised, virtual, robotic and automated; telehealthcare and remote monitoring will become mainstream, chatbots will handle increasingly complex queries and make a much bigger contribution to triage, while virtual reality and robotics will help relieve the burden on healthcare professionals.

“With the help of remote technology and virtual triage service, we are quickly moving towards an ‘always on’ healthcare model, which is both efficient and sustainable,” she asserts. “We are all living longer and the cost and demand for healthcare is rising, putting pressure on governments and private companies to reimagine how healthcare is delivered.”

According to Savini, Ireland’s digital transformation in health is progressing relatively quickly, but not at the speed necessary to satisfy the demands of today’s healthcare system. “I think more people are now aware of the fact that digital is a prerequisite to do this business rather than a nice-to-have, so this is a turning point for many businesses. Plus, there is more to digital transformation than just technology, so the biggest challenge is changing mindset – doing something digital here.”

But she adds that a lot of the initiatives introduced out of necessity during the pandemic are here to stay. “Just like remote working is not going to disappear after the vaccine is rolled out, telehealthcare will soon become mainstream with virtual consultations replacing face-to-face appointments in many cases.”

Yet Savini agrees there is “an Irish advantage”, with Ireland uniquely positioned to take advantage of this growing appetite for digital health technologies. “It’s a combination of state planning and strategic partnerships combined with world-class technical expertise and a competitive corporation tax rate. But what truly sets Ireland apart, is our ability to collaborate. More and more companies are recognising the importance of partnering with technical experts to fast-track their roadmap to innovation and achieve their goals. We are seeing a big shift towards long-term collaborations with clients asking for ongoing engagements that go beyond developing a website or a mobile app.”

Magnet for multinationals

Byrne believes that Ireland’s strong performance in the digital health sphere has been aided by our long-standing status as a magnet for multinationals. “We have had a concentration of the ICT [information and communication technology] sector and the pharma sector here for many years, and when you are blending those two parts and then putting on top of it a level of innovation and the entrepreneurial spirit we have as a nation, the conditions are right. We are also very familiar with working in regulated environments because of our previous experience in medical devices and pharma. These are areas with strict compliance and a highly-regulated environment, so this is natural to us.”

That entrepreneurship and innovation came to the fore during the pandemic, with many of Ireland’s digital health entities transferring their technologies into solutions that would aid in the fight against the virus. NearForm, the Tramore-based company which devised the Covid-19 tracker app for the HSE, immediately springs to mind.

"They did something quite remarkable in a very short space of time and it was eventually rolled out in a number of other markets such as Scotland and Gibraltar. That was pretty unique," says Byrne. He also namechecks a software company called 8West which worked with the College of Medicine and Health and the Tyndall Institute at University College Cork (UCC) to devise a remote early warning system for staff who may be coming down with symptoms of Covid-19. This uses sophisticated biosensor technology, whereby biometric data is picked up by a device to give people advance warning that they may be developing symptoms.

“Again, Covid-19 has really pushed out the boat in terms of the wider acceptance of doing things remotely and using technology like sensors,” Byrne notes. “The patient and the end user are getting more comfortable with it.”

Common denominator

Savini echoes this, saying the common denominator is remote access to information, services and products that previously required physical interactions – this generates efficiencies for providers while empowering consumers, she says. "Health Passport Europe is a good example of this. The mobile app was initially created for Ireland and is quickly becoming a global healthcare solution. The system combines accurate testing with the latest mobile technology and is designed to support all official Covid-19 tests. After being tested or vaccinated, people can download the app and get quick and easy access to their results on their mobile device. This can be digitally scanned at a safe distance to reduce physical contact and aid our return to normality," she explains.

Enterprise Ireland has a large number of clients across the full spectrum of healthcare and Byrne notes that Ireland has a “very healthy ecosystem”. With more funders of digital health coming into the market in terms of early stage funding through venture capitalists and other players coupled with greater interest in digital health companies from the investment community, as well as strong investment in centres of excellence by the Government, he says Ireland is uniquely poised to benefit from the global surge in demand for digital health solutions.

“We would see double digit growth for purely digital health in the next three to five years of 10 to 15 per cent but there will also be associated growth around adjacent areas, like cyber security and data analytics. There is a huge level of integration and the knock-on effects will be huge, so there will be strong growth in these areas too.”

Savini agrees: “Ireland has a great collaborative culture, technical expertise and government funding which means we are very well positioned to innovate and deliver world class digital products and services. But we need to embrace change and reimagine how we do things in a more holistic way, starting with a cohesive digital strategy that connects patients and healthcare professionals safely and efficiently, and by collaborating closely together so that we can deliver more impact through partnership.”

Barry McCall

Barry McCall is a contributor to The Irish Times