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Four healthcare technology trends to watch in 2018

Healthcare organizations should be prepared to see applications for blockchain and more uses for AI in 2018. Analytics provided by EHR vendors will also emerge.

Industry experts are busy making their predictions for the top healthcare technology trends of 2018. The SearchHealthIT team looked into their respective crystal balls to make their own predictions about what trends the industry should be on the lookout for in the new year.

Blockchain finds its way back onto our 2018 list of healthcare technology trends after one health IT expert posited that the technology would move from theory to practice in 2017. Senior news and feature writer Shaun Sutner hypothesizes that the technology will start seeing its first real-world tests in healthcare this year.

EHR vendors will begin to find themselves more involved with providing analytics to healthcare providers, according to editorial director Scott Wallask.

Artificial intelligence will also continue to gain ground this year as healthcare organizations begin to apply the technology to medical diagnoses and image recognition, said news writer Kristen Lee.

Rounding out our predictions for the top healthcare technology trends of 2018 is digital health, which is becoming increasingly embraced by healthcare providers and patients alike. 

Let's look at these predictions in more detail, as our editors and writers weigh in:

Blockchain moves from hope to practical use

It's more than a fad and more than hype, but still, blockchain, and its healthcare incarnations, has yet to prove itself in the demanding crucible of health IT systems and clinical healthcare settings.

Shaun Sutner, senior news and features writerShaun Sutner

Sure, blockchain is one of the hottest healthcare technology trends during this window in time.

But this year in particular will be a major test for the fast-developing technology's first major foray as people in the health IT community watch to see if and how providers start to use it to protect and more easily exchange health data.

There's no question that in 2018, major vendors, many startups and independent software companies are moving quickly toward more fully realized blockchain in healthcare systems than most thought possible when blockchain burst out of the worlds of bitcoin and mainstream commerce little more than two years ago.

Now, IBM, Intel, Google, Microsoft  and others have units dedicated to development of blockchain products, including for healthcare. Federal health IT officials are promoting it in a big way.

Change Healthcare, made up of the former McKesson Corp.'s IT holdings, announced its own blockchain in healthcare product last year and is marketing it in 2018.

Yet, skeptics remain, and justifiably so.

Not only are there most likely distinct limitations to a technology that has not yet been realized in healthcare, but health IT has already seen other "solutions" to intractable problems like health data interoperability and cybersecurity fail.

But at least one thing is clear: The technology has much hope riding on it.

-- Shaun Sutner, senior news and features writer

EHR vendors more involved in analytics

With electronic health record (EHR) systems in full force throughout the medical industry, 2018 will be the year when EHR vendors move more solidly into patient data analytics work. The advantages of doing so are clear, such as improving population health efforts and providing real-time reporting among various healthcare specialties.

Scott Wallask, editorial directorScott Wallask

Providers will respond favorably to this push. Most physician practices use at least some analytics capabilities already embedded in their EHR systems, according to a poll in 2017 conducted by MGMA, an association of medical practice professionals.

The potential for EHR giants like Epic Systems Corp. and Cerner Corp. to aggregate patient data within their products is a new business line that is blooming. Cerner has already planted its stake in population health management, which at its core requires number crunching to gauge patient outcomes. Company president Zane Burke told the Kansas City Business Journal that Cerner will expand its population health tools in 2018 based on the patient data it has amassed.

Cloud-based EHR seller AthenaHealth, a smaller competitor to Cerner and Epic, also pushes its population health analytics products, which ties in EHR data with patient insurance claims and lab results, for example.

-- Scott Wallask, editorial director

AI heads toward diagnosis

Artificial intelligence (AI) will no longer be a technology that healthcare professionals dream about one day impacting the industry and how patient care is delivered. For AI, 2018 is the year that this technology will move from simply being piloted at healthcare organizations to starting to make a real impact.

Kristen Lee, news and features writerKristen Lee

Although the most common uses of AI in healthcare today come in the form of natural language processing and robotic process automation -- where AI is being used in a more basic form to pinpoint certain data in a sea of data, such as MedCPU, or automate repetitive administrative tasks, such as Blue Prism, for example -- healthcare organizations are poised to do more with AI.

Some are already using AI for clinical decision support, population health, disease management, readmissions and claims processing, according to a survey conducted by the Center for Connected Medicine and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center in Pennsylvania. But some experts believe that in 2018 AI will begin to provide value in areas such as cancer diagnostics, pathology, and image recognition -- something Merge Healthcare, an IBM company that uses Watson, is capable of doing.

Expect AI to make practical inroads in 2018, Mark Michalski, executive director at Massachusetts General Hospital and Brigham and Women's Hospital's Center for Clinical Data Science in Boston, told Computer Business Review that, "By the end of next year, I think around half of leading healthcare systems will have adopted some form of AI within their diagnostic groups."

-- Kristen Lee, news and features writer

The digital health transformation will be mobilized

Mobile is becoming increasingly prevalent in healthcare, and with the proliferation of smartphones and tablets, the trend doesn't appear to be slowing down any time soon. As far as healthcare technology trends go, digital health is one that is predicted to grow exponentially in 2018 and beyond. According to seed fund Rock Health, $3.5 billion was invested in 188 digital health companies in the first half of 2017 alone, and the number of wearables is projected to hit 34 million by 2022, according to Statista.

Tayla Holman, associate site editorTayla Holman

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also issued new guidance that loosened its regulations for certain mobile health technologies to reflect its "new, more modern approach to digital health products." The agency said it was aware that healthcare providers and consumers were embracing digital health technology such as fitness trackers and mobile health apps, and that clinical evidence supported the fact that consumers can experience better outcomes when they are better informed about health. As such, the FDA felt it should encourage the development of technologies that can help people become more informed and "foster, not inhibit, innovation." 

Digital health enables the elderly to age and live better in their own homes, using technology like fall-detection monitors. Telehealth and telemedicine will also be part of the digital health transformation as more states update their laws to expand access to those services. One area that is being expanded is telemental and telebehavioral health services. This is particularly beneficial since one in five adults in the U.S. suffers from mental illness, and often turn to their smartphone before they seek healthcare. Increasing mental health services allows more people to receive care when and where they need it.

-- Tayla Holman, associate site editor

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