Star Trek, the classic science fiction television series, illustrates a distant future where space explorers travel between galaxies equipped with cutting-edge technologies such as a communicator, a food replicator and the indispensable tricorder, a portable medical device capable of scanning a person’s vital signs, diagnose and prescribe treatment in minutes.
We are in the midst of a major wave of innovation and revolution across the healthcare industry that has the potential to create new opportunities for businesses, reduce overall medical costs and, most importantly, improve patient outcomes. There has never been a more exciting time in healthcare. The last time we came close was about 20 years ago when the human genome was first sequenced. That was an important first step. And today we are witnessing important progress as a result of that first step.
The pandemic and the rush to develop a COVID-19 vaccine highlight the important role drugs can play in improving people’s health and longevity, but the wave of innovation extends far beyond the pharmaceutical and biotech industries. Not only do we get news of new drug therapies virtually every day, but advances in research tools, diagnostics and remote patient monitoring are converging to change the face of healthcare.
Genome Mapping Presents Enormous Opportunities
When the human genome was first sequenced about two decades ago, it took the team of researchers nearly eight years and over 100 million. Today, a human genome can be sequenced in days for about 1,000. Subsequent breakthroughs in the field of DNA analysis have led to a new era for medicine. Today we can compare the human genome map with cancer-related mutations. We can then identify specific mutations in cancer and combine them with the right therapies. We can do a much better job of treating patients based on understanding that code. Indeed, genomics research and therapies derived from genetic testing have the potential to extend life and generate billions of dollars in revenue for the companies that develop them.
US pharmaceutical company Merck, the creator of the successful Keytruda immunotherapy treatment, biopharmaceutical companies such as Gilead Sciences and others have invested millions of dollars in developing gene-based treatments for various cancers, including bladder cancer and melanoma. Significantly reduced costs and scientific developments have contributed to phenomenal growth in medical science research and development (R&D). “We are in a renaissance for R&D and companies are investing aggressively to find unique ways to fight cancer and other diseases,” says Cheryl Frank, equity portfolio manager. “We are seeing unprecedented progression-free survival rates for many types of cancer.”
A Convergence of Technological Advances Around the World
Drug companies aren’t the only ones with the potential to benefit from these advances. A wide range of companies, such as Illumina, a manufacturer of genetic testing equipment, and Thermo Fisher Scientific, a research and manufacturing company, provide services to various pharmaceutical product developers.
Greater advances in technology, such as greater connectivity and artificial intelligence, are helping to accelerate the development of therapies, says Frank. “I think many cancers can be effectively treated by 2030,” he adds. “We are already using sophisticated tools that predict the behavior of molecules and reduce the need to create as many. And I think in the future we will use the data more effectively to identify which patients will benefit most from the therapies developed.” The United States remains a world leader in innovation for a variety of reasons, but clearly America won’t be the only source of pharmaceutical innovation going forward, says Frank, who has been in the healthcare industry for 18 years.
Rapid Advances in Diagnostics Can Lead to Early Detection
Major advances in diagnostics are contributing to early disease detection, which can help increase drug effectiveness or in some cases prevent disease before it even occurs. One of the most exciting aspects of healthcare today is known as a liquid biopsy, with which a blood sample can be used to identify a tumor in the very early stages.
A patient might visit their doctor for an annual checkup, have a blood test done, and find out if they have any type of cancer. Early diagnosis is crucial for cancer treatment.
But continuous innovation in diagnostics is not limited to hospitals or doctors’ offices. Home diagnostic devices, including continuous glucose monitoring devices, insulin pumps, implantable ECG loop recorders, and connected sleep apnea devices, increasingly enable physicians to monitor patients remotely.
Several traditional and medtech technology companies have been working to develop this field for some time. Over the past five years, we’ve seen great movement among great tech minds, who have combined their expertise with that of great minds in the health care field, and that’s very important.. We are still in the early stages of developing cost-effective devices that can collect all kinds of health data that can not only help us improve our health, but can also be sent immediately to the doctor.
COVID Turns the Spotlight on Telemedicine
Telemedicine, or doctor-patient counseling online instead of in person, has been available for some time, but until earlier this year it had achieved a rather low adherence rate, which changed with the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition, authorities and healthcare professionals have loosened their rules to allow for more digitization.
Today, many consumers have had their first experience in telemedicine. Frank believes this trend is likely to persist. “I believe that the combination of telemedicine, home diagnostics and home delivery of medicines will allow you to treat almost anything from home,” says Frank. “Personal devices will use this data to help us improve health.”
Frank cites, for example, a colleague of his, who became pregnant during the pandemic, who ordered a Doppler, a tape measure and a blood pressure device on the Internet and made several pre-birth visits online.
Patients Take the Helm
Perhaps the biggest change, driven by the situation in the United States, will be the greater control patients take over their own health care through the combination of technologies, Wolf says. Healthcare costs in the United States have been skyrocketing for years and are expected to rise. But the growth of telemedicine and vast improvements in the quality of information available to patients could result in a change in the nature of care.
Price discovery in the US healthcare sector has long been weak. If you ask the average American how much he paid for his TV or car, he’ll be able to tell you in a few dollars wrong, but he won’t be able to do the same about his recent medical treatment. Today, a company like GoodRx can notify a patient if a medicine is cheaper in town or at the local pharmacy. The fact that patients are becoming much more involved in healthcare is leading to an incredible paradigm shift in the way it is accessed and delivered.
Not All Innovators Are Big Investments
Of course, not all innovators turned out to be big investments. The good news bad news is that innovators come in all shapes and sizes. Both dynamic small companies and health care giants have the potential to be successful in the future of health service delivery. But there will also be glaring failures among both small and large companies. While innovation is a key element for the success of companies in such a dynamic industry, it must be remembered that strong management and solid capital allocation are also important.
Identifying the winners of the next decade will require in-depth study and the ability to look beyond the next semester. Today much of the attention is paid to the pandemic and the development of vaccines. They are very important, but we are also looking beyond, trying to determine how healthcare will transform in the next decade and how we can invest in these changes.