Technologies with high potential to transform health care in 2021

By Barbara Greenwood Dufour

The fast pace of medical technology development is already transforming the Canadian health care system. But what game-changers are waiting around the corner? To help health care decision-makers prepare for the adoption of technologies that are not yet widely used, CADTH is continuously scanning the horizon to identify the ones that are the most promising.

CADTH is an independent agency that finds, assesses, and summarizes the research on drugs, medical devices, tests, and procedures. CADTH recently released its List of 2021 Health Technology Trends to Watch — a list of emerging health technology trends that have potential to significantly influence the future of health care in Canada.


To develop its Watch List, CADTH looked for technologies with an FDA Breakthrough Devices Designation and for any other technologies that could change how health care is delivered. Then, CADTH consulted with its Device Advisory Committee for more context and to help determine which technologies had the highest likelihood of having an impact.

This article describes just a few of the technologies featured in the Watch List.

WEARABLES

The market for wearable devices — or “wearables” — developed for use in health care continues to grow. Two new wearables have been designed to learn the wearer’s normal vital signs and detect changes in them. One has recently been developed for people with nightmare disorder or who have nightmares associated with post-traumatic stress syndrome. Worn on the wrist (like a smartwatch) while sleeping, the device detects and learns an individual’s normal sleeping heart rate and body movements. When it senses a change that suggests a nightmare is beginning, the device vibrates gently enough to stop the nightmare without waking up the wearer.

Another new wearable has been developed for users of opioids who are at risk of opioid-induced respiratory depression. This device is worn on the chest to detect and learn the normal breathing patterns of the wearer. When it detects abnormal breathing, which could mean the wearer is experiencing respiratory depression, the device sends an alert to first responders.

AUGMENTED AND VIRTUAL REALITY

Augmented reality and virtual reality (VR) technologies are also providing new treatment options for people with various conditions. A new contact lens has been developed that uses augmented reality to help people with low or impaired vision see better — by increasing contrast or brightness, for example. And a VR headset has recently been designed to provide cognitive behavioural therapy, mindfulness, and relaxation programs for people with conditions such as fibromyalgia or chronic low back pain.

ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE

Other innovations included in the Watch List involve the use of artificial intelligence (AI) to create systems for performing health care-related tasks that typically require human intelligence. Two of these are AI-based systems for analyzing diagnostic images — one analyzes CT scans of the brain to detect critical abnormalities that could lead to stroke (such as intracranial hemorrhage and large vessel occlusion), and another analyzes MRI scans of the breast to detect abnormalities that could suggest the presence of breast cancer.

AI-based imaging systems are already being used in all Canadian provinces and some territories. Data on where AI imaging technology is being used in Canada is captured in CADTH’s Canadian Medical Imaging Inventory, available at cadth.ca/cmii.

COVID-19

CADTH also identified new technologies that directly address issues related to COVID-19. As testing for the virus remains an important part of managing the pandemic, new COVID-19 tests are being approved rapidly. A number of home sampling kits have been developed — one that has been approved by Health Canada could soon be available at your local pharmacy. There are also new tests being developed that can detect and differentiate between COVID-19 and influenza from a single sample — some are for use in the lab, while others are for use at the point of care.

In addition, 3-D printer designs are emerging that address ventilator shortages resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. Examples include a new low-cost ventilator design as well as a design for a plastic adaptor that converts BiPAP (bilevel positive airway pressure) machines into mechanical ventilators — both of which can be quickly 3-D printed on location in a hospital.

As is the case with new and emerging technologies, there’s only limited evidence so far on how effective these devices are or how they compare with existing treatments. But CADTH’s Watch List provides an early look at the technologies that could change and impact Canadian health care in the coming years — which can help health care decision-makers see around the next corner.

You can access the entire CADTH Watch List at cadth.ca/health-technology-trends-watch. To learn more about our Horizon Scanning program, visit cadth.ca/horizon-scanning, or to suggest a new or emerging health technology for CADTH to review, email us at HorizonScanning@cadth.ca. If you’d like to learn more about CADTH, visit cadth.ca, follow us on Twitter @CADTH_ACMTS, or speak to a Liaison Officer in your region: cadth.ca/Liaison-Officers.

Barbara Greenwood Dufour is a knowledge mobilization officer at CADTH.