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Is digital health the next frontier in the global fight against cancer?

A clinician looking through a microscope, illustrating the rapid development in cancer research. Technology is helping make massive strides in cancer diagnosis and treatments.

Technology is helping make massive strides in cancer diagnosis and treatments. Image: Photo by National Cancer Institute on Unsplash

Antonio Spina
Lead, Health and Healthcare, World Economic Forum
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  • With one in six deaths caused by cancer, experts are searching for new digital health innovations that could turn the tide in the fight against it.
  • The rapid rise of digital and data-driven technology in healthcare could offer unprecedented potential in the fight against cancer.
  • Global leaders must take steps to ensure that the digital health revolution helps produce a more equitable and sustainable global health system.

Many notable innovations have recently emerged in oncology, including CAR-T cell therapy, liquid biopsies and CRISPR-based treatment — most stemming from biological science fields, such as genomics, pathology and immunology.

However, the rapid rise of digital and data-driven technology in healthcare — such as artificial intelligence (AI), the Internet of things (IoT) and robotics — could offer unprecedented potential in the fight against cancer.

Computational tools to unlock cancer cures

The rise of computational tools has unlocked new approaches to treatments. In particular, AI and machine learning hold the potential to revolutionise how drugs are matched to patients, taking personalised cancer care to the next level. Such technologies could also drastically transform the timeline for developing new drugs, making it a matter of months rather than years.

Other frontier tech applications are in the works too. Quantum computing, for example, could have the potential to rapidly advance drug discovery and clinical trials. New multi-sectoral partnerships are forming around quantum computing in medicine, with oncology as a key focus area.


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Going beyond the pill: prevention and diagnosis

Beyond developing and integrating new treatments, AI shows incredible promise to vastly improve early detection and prevention rates too. Missed or incorrect medical diagnoses are a serious concern in healthcare and oncology is one of the highest-risk specialities.

Leading research and medical institutions are applying the latest AI advancements to diagnose common cancers, including lung cancer via CT scans and colon cancer via endoscopy, where algorithms can spot difficult-to-detect cancers more effectively than humans. This technology is still maturing, but it could soon produce a step change in the percentage of cancers caught early.

Given potential safety concerns with automation and security and privacy concerns with patients’ health data, however, authorities must ensure the responsible use of these new technologies by putting in place appropriate regulatory mechanisms and ethical guidelines,

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Digitising the patient journey

New digital technologies may transform health outcomes and support a better patient experience. A wide variety of established digital tools, often including mobile applications and telehealth, have been employed to help patients and families manage some aspects of cancer care from the relative comfort of their homes.

Emerging evidence even suggests that virtual reality could become a potential tool for cancer care across a variety of use cases, including patient education and anxiety management. Some virtual solutions for pain management have already received FDA approval and similar technologies could one day be translated into oncology.

Expanding global access to care for all

With as many as 70% of cancer deaths occurring in low and middle-income countries (LMICs), it is crucial that these new technologies reach the most vulnerable — especially as they already have shown great promise in low-resource settings, such as rural India.

Some LMICs, however, face various roadblocks to digital health uptake, such as limited financial resources, inadequate infrastructure and a shortage of skilled healthcare professionals. International funding and support will be key to bridging the technology and health gaps. In total, the World Health Organization has called for at least $140 billion to be invested by 2030 to ensure 90% coverage of cancer services globally.

As digital innovations in the fight against cancer continue to advance, global leaders must take steps to ensure that successful innovations reach those who need them most and that the digital health revolution helps produce a more equitable and sustainable global health system.

This article is published in collaboration with Health News IE’s #Innovations in Oncology Campaign 2023 campaign.

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Institutional update

World Economic Forum

May 21, 2024

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