By Lu Zhang Founder & Managing Partner of Fusion Fund | Forbes 30 under 30 | F50 Global Committee
Digitization in healthcare is arriving so fast that it’s hard to keep track. In fact, venture capitalists poured $5.1 billion of funding into digital health companies in the first half of 2019, with the largest sums going to analytics, telemedicine, and mobile apps. Investment priorities have shifted in the second half of 2019 to aspects like digital mental health and data-driven personalization. However, no matter where investment dollars are going, all aspects of digital healthcare have one thing in common: the need for ample processing power.
If digital healthcare is going to fulfill expectations, it must be able to provide instant feedback on massive datasets. Currently, huge files like medical images are sent to the cloud for analysis. Moving the information back and forth creates latency issues; this translates to doctors having to wait longer for pertinent information. If the healthcare industry can’t overcome these issues, digitization will have a minor impact.
Fortunately, edge computing offers the computing power and instant feedback providers need, and it can be integrated directly into many of the technologies moving toward the market. With the lightning-fast processing speeds offered by edge computing, physicians and other health professionals get immediate access to the insights they need so patients don’t have to wait for care to continue. It’s the ideal situation for everyone, but it all depends on whether the industry embraces edge computing.
The Future of Edge Computing
Thus far, the industry has not been averse to edge computing specifically; the aversion applies to healthcare tech in general. Healthcare is a traditional sector that’s resistant to change, particularly around transformative technologies.
Being cautious about immature technologies makes sense. However, edge computing is beyond that point — so much so that it integrates with other technologies and processes quite easily. Similarly, having the capabilities of edge computing makes it easier to implement and integrate all other tech associated with digital healthcare.
Take a cancer diagnosis, for example. New types of testing collect large amounts of data to improve the diagnosis. With edge computing, oncologists can get the analysis back immediately, along with highly detailed medical images. A process that used to take hours or days may take just minutes, thanks to the superior processing power inside each provider’s office (instead of in a distant cloud).
In that way, edge computers are like accelerators, and they’re becoming accessible at exactly the right time. Consider Mackenzie Vaughan Hospital, a smart hospital currently under construction (to the tune of $1.6 billion) in Toronto. Multiple systems within the facility will communicate with each other, and medical technology will be linked and synced. All of this will inevitably generate tons of data, and managing it will be impossible without edge computing (as will most healthcare initiatives dependent on large amounts of data).
Some may object to the advancement of this technology, suggesting that edge computing will kill jobs for professionals who analyze health data, but those fears are unfounded. Ultimately, edge computing is about enabling and empowering human caregivers, and it does that in a way no human can replicate: by quickly turning massive amounts of data into something digestible.
Preparing to Leverage Edge Computing
It’s important to understand that edge computing is simply a means to an end. The capabilities of edge computing are not what matters. The capabilities of present and future medical tech combined with edge computing are more important. Having enough processing power to manage huge data volumes allows this tech to produce incredible outputs — diagnoses, medical images, drug discovery, and more — in far less time.
It will still be some time before edge computing becomes ubiquitous. There are still issues around affordability and accessibility, but they’re likely to resolve quickly once the healthcare industry rallies around this technology. To varying degrees, most healthcare providers, pharmaceutical companies, and biotech developers realize they have a looming problem in terms of data volumes.
Healthcare data is full of value, but there aren’t enough data scientists to extract it. As the industry increasingly relies on leveraging data, expect edge computing to advance rapidly. Even if a provider or company is not the direct user of this computing technology, everyone benefits from its presence in the industry. Therefore, it’s likely to be omnipresent 20 years from now.
At that point, healthcare will look drastically different — medical devices and smart sensors will be capable of collecting information about our health around the clock. Technology empowered by edge computing will analyze that data, then alert patients and doctors as soon as an issue appears. It’s a paradigm shift for medicine that could save lives and extend life spans.