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Tracking the way to a smarter healthcare industry

Bethan Halliwell of intellectual property firm Withers & Rogers on how monitoring and tracking tech is evolving and increasingly influencing healthcare.  

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A lady in Dartmouth, Devon, scans the NHS QR Code to enter a venue for the UK's track and trace system.

The pandemic has put unimaginable strain on the healthcare sector and highlighted a need for more resilient systems and processes.

To support the sector, digital health innovators have turned their attention towards digital tracking and monitoring systems that could be used in various clinical settings.

Over the last year, the UK healthcare sector has faced many challenges regarding its systems, from how to deliver medical services remotely to how to effectively track the spread of the virus through the rollout of track and trace.

As well as issues around functionality, there has been a general lack of trust, with many people unwilling to sign up to digital health platforms due to concerns around data privacy.

This is an issue that the healthcare sector has faced for a number years whilst trying to bring its systems into the digital space, primarily because of the sensitive nature of the data that it handles.

The increased prevalence of cyberattacks means there is often hesitancy to allow such information to be held electronically, as well as other concerns about how that data might be used outside of a person’s medical care.

Healthcare services have become increasingly virtual throughout the pandemic, and this trend is likely to continue over the next few years.

As a result, the speed of digital uptake needs to improve, ensuring every part of the health service, from GPs to hospital clinicians, has access to accurate and up-to-date patient data, whilst finding ways to make virtual medical care as effective as in-person services.

This is where digital tracking and monitoring systems come to the fore.

Patient monitoring systems, for example, can be used to collect key health information from patients at different points throughout the day, sharing it with clinicians as necessary.

The information gathered can then be used to inform decisions about a patient’s medical condition and required treatment.

The NHS Test and Trace service is just one example of a nationwide tracking and monitoring system that has been used for healthcare purposes.

While it has not proved hugely effective in the UK, similar systems have been used successfully in other countries such as South Korea, demonstrating their potential to track the spread of a virus and help lower infection rates.

Fitness trackers have also gained considerable traction in recent years. No longer are these limited to recording heart rate and steps taken, the use of multiple sensors means they now have the ability to undertake more detailed health-related monitoring.

In some settings, data collected by these devices is already being integrated with patient data held by medical centres, allowing information such as blood sugar levels and blood pressure to be recorded and used by clinicians to monitor and treat their patients more effectively.

As the technology in fitness trackers and other wearable devices becomes more advanced, there is also scope for using the data collected to observe trends in disease based on lifestyle, genetics and socioeconomic background.

The results could then be used to predict if and when a person or group of people are likely to get a disease – paving the way for more preventative medicine.

Current Health, a remote patient monitoring platform, is dedicated to this cause.

It has created a wearable device (patent applications EP3488781A1 and EP3636144A1), worn on the upper arm, which continuously monitors respiratory rate, heart rate, changes in systolic blood pressure, oxygen saturation, skin temperature and movement.

The data gathered by the device is continuously transmitted to a predictive analytics software platform, enabling the user’s vital signs to be monitored for changes and indications of risk. Should the system determine that the wearer is in danger, it can be programmed to send an alert to the wearer and their clinician.

Other innovations include contact-free monitoring solutions, such as that created by US company EarlySense.

This patented technology (US8882684B2 and US9026199B2) is also able to detect and respond to certain biological markers, in turn allowing early medical intervention.

The technology can even be used to help predict patient falls and the onset of labour.

However, rather than being a wearable device, sensors are placed under the patient’s mattress and detect mechanical vibrations to analyse the person’s condition while they are in bed, making the system completely unobtrusive to the user.

As a result of this societal shift towards more digital healthcare, the sector is becoming an increasingly saturated market.

As the technology involved is often not heavily reliant on expensive equipment, it is a prime opportunity for startups, which means that we can expect to see the sector become even more crowded over time.

In fact, the worldwide digital health market is projected to reach in excess of $500 billion by 2025.

The pandemic has undoubtedly accelerated innovation activity in this area, and patent filing data shows that smaller outbreaks of disease have triggered significant spikes in patent applications in the past.

A substantial rise in healthcare patent applications is expected to be revealed in the coming year, as those applications begin to publish, and accurate data should begin to emerge in the latter half of 2021.

Patent protection is therefore vital for innovators in the digital healthcare sector, providing freedom to operate in this increasingly crowded market.

The high volume of innovators in the sector means there is a higher risk of inadvertently infringing another company’s IP rights and, in particular, startups and smaller companies may need to tread carefully.

Large companies are more likely to have an extensive patent portfolio that covers every aspect of their invention, forming a thicket of protection that can be hard to break through.

As a result, startups should consider their IP strategy early on to protect their inventions and strengthen their bargaining position with other businesses should they find their freedom to operate being threatened by another company’s IP portfolio.

Smaller companies that develop an attractive IP portfolio could potentially license their patented technologies to third parties, in exchange for royalty payments.

Licensing patented technologies to third parties can generate considerable revenue, which in the early stages of a business, can help to roll out technology as quickly and widely as possible.

By creating a robust IP portfolio, companies may also be able to obtain cross-licenses with third parties, which allow both parties to use each other’s IP rights freely, avoiding costly disputes.

In a crowded field such as healthcare, it can be near impossible to design around all third-party IP, so the ability to negotiate cross-licensing agreements will put companies in a much stronger position to enter the market.

Despite some issues with functionality and user uptake, remote tracking and monitoring systems are evolving at a pace.

Their potential to revolutionise the way people are cared for, both in hospitals and at home, means digital healthcare will continue to attract innovators in years to come.

Bethan Halliwell is an associate in the electronics, computing & physics group at European intellectual property firm, Withers & Rogers. 

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