If you bring up the topic of the future of healthcare, it is easy to think of those futuristic scenes: robotic arms doing surgery, body scans that render 3D images of patients’ organs or bone structures, holographic doctors beamed into the homes of patients for remote consultation.
These, of course, are bold ideas that help push forward the technological frontier of healthcare. Some of them are even turning into real-life solutions to support doctors in delivering better care. But technology is not all the future is about: what we envision is leveraging the power of innovation to create a future where everyone has access to high-quality healthcare.
Meeting people’s needs
The inherent driver for the ongoing advance of healthcare is the growing need for better health and wellbeing. This is especially true after more than 18 months of fighting against Covid-19. Around the world, people are putting more attention on healthcare — not only on protecting the population’s everyday health, but also on the medical services that are available in the hour of need.
Apart from the societal impact from Covid-19, a few major demographic trends are urging the healthcare system to find innovative approaches to more accessible, better healthcare services. One of them is the ageing population. Take China for example: the latest data from the country’s 2021 census shows that people aged 65 or older account for 13.5% of the total population. According to a World Bank study, that percentage is projected to increase to 14% in 2025 and 26.1% in 2050. With increasingly more seniors asking for attentive care, the healthcare system needs to be prepared to not only address common diseases and causes of injury in the older population, but also work out customised solutions to deliver the products and services to those who need them.
In response to this growing need, it is encouraging to see that governments around the world are putting increasing emphasis on healthcare. In recent years, China has released a series of favourable policies to support the healthcare industry development. From the acceleration of innovative medical products and drugs approval, to reforming the national health insurance schemes to advance healthcare accessibility and affordability, policy-makers are determined to improve health outcomes for the Chinese population by leveraging the power of innovation.
In healthcare, there is a wide range of scenarios that can be improved with innovative models and new technologies. From pharmaceutical research and development (R&D) to diagnostics and treatment, from hospital management to personal health monitoring, innovation is bringing enormous changes to the healthcare landscape to provide better access and outcomes, with higher efficiency and lower cost, both for the patient and the healthcare provider.
The surgical revolution is a great example. From traditional open surgery that generally requires large incisions, to minimally invasive surgery that is already commonplace today, surgical techniques have come in leaps and bounds over past decades, allowing surgeons to treat what was once thought untreatable. Today, one of the most exciting technological advances is robotic surgery. With the help of robotic arms operating inside the patient’s body, surgeons are granted enhanced visibility of the surgical site and can operate with greater flexibility and precision. For the patient, this means less time to recover with less pain, reduced blood loss and minimised complications — all of which are ultimately better outcomes.
It is worth mentioning that robotic surgery is still a burgeoning technology. We anticipate many more breakthroughs that will potentially transform surgery and treatment as we know it in the future. For example, to battle lung cancer, Johnson & Johnson (J&J) has launched Monarch, a robotic technology used in diagnostic and therapeutic bronchoscopic procedures. By allowing doctors to reach the lungs through airways, rather than going through the chest wall, the robotic endoscope ensures the procedure is done in a minimally invasive way. This significantly improves the reach for sampling small peripheral lung lesions to diagnose whether they are cancerous.
Building on this, researchers are taking the technology even further so that, one day, we could use it to not just diagnose lung cancer, but also treat the cancerous lesion locally during the same procedure.
Robotic surgery is just one of the many healthcare innovations coming to the fore. Thanks to the rapid development of cutting-edge digital technologies, such as 5G, artificial intelligence (AI), Internet of Things and big data, more and more innovative ideas are becoming viable solutions that help put health within the reach of everyone, everywhere.
AI is already used to analyse hundreds of millions of protein structures and predict how molecules react, transforming the traditional trial-and-error process of drug discovery and bringing new life-saving drugs to patients faster. And while reading medical images during diagnosis previously took a long time and relied heavily on experience of the radiologist, big data now helps boost efficiency of medical imaging analysis while also improving consistency and accuracy — especially in places where high-quality medical resources fall short.
As science and technology continue to advance, we believe more innovative healthcare solutions will emerge to benefit people all around the world.
Writing the future of healthcare is not something that can be done by a single company. To address the pressing needs of patients and doctors, we must form an open ecosystem to connect government authorities, industry players and research institutions. By working closely together, we can quickly identify promising technologies and solutions at all stages of development, and bring them to patients quicker.
In China, such an ecosystem is already in the making, thanks to increasing policy support, continuous influx of talent and funds, and exciting technology development happening at a fast pace. Contributing our resources to drive effective collaboration, J&J has established a single point of entry open-innovation platform in Shanghai, including innovation funding and investing, incubation, R&D collaboration and acceleration, and a flexible deal structure.
Take ‘JLabs @ Shanghai’ — the very first such incubator in Asia-Pacific and our largest innovation incubator globally — as an example. We are providing more than just the combination of shared and private lab and office spaces, equipment, value-added solutions, operational support, education and business services. Since its launch in June 2019, JLabs has attracted more than 50 resident companies, which collectively raised more than $2bn in financing and strategic partnerships, and around one-third of the resident start-ups have successfully graduated. We are very encouraged to see the resident companies making breakthroughs in their respective areas, be it AI-powered drug discovery, new approaches to tackle metabolic diseases, or AI-based lung cancer solutions.
An innovation ecosystem is especially relevant in face of Covid-19. In the post-pandemic new normal, it is critical to look back at the lessons learnt from the past year and a half. Everyone — governments, the private sector, industry associations, academia circles, individuals and many others around the world — must join hands and work effectively together to find new approaches to advance today’s public health system so that we are better prepared for global health crises of tomorrow.
We are in the early days of a rapidly accelerating healthcare innovation journey. But there is absolutely no doubt that by embracing transformational innovation and collaboration, there is a great future ahead — a future where everyone is healthier, happier and taken care of.
Will Song is the chairman of Johnson & Johnson China
This article first appeared in the August/September print edition of fDi Intelligence. View a digital edition of the magazine here.