“The digital revolution has definitely started”

Special reports

Author: Johanna Stiefler JohnsonPublished: 19 August 2021

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An older couple consult a clinician on a tablet.

How is digital technology shaping care for people with Parkinson’s disease? In a special issue of the ‘Journal of Parkinson’s Disease’, experts share insights into the future of digital health – from innovative tools to new research applications

“The increase in use of digital platforms is transforming neurological care at a rapid pace.”

So write the guest editors of a special issue of ‘Journal of Parkinson’s Disease’ – among whom are notable neurology experts Dr Anat Mirelman, Dr Bastiaan Bloem and Dr Ray Dorsey.

Bringing together insights from experts and researchers around the world, the journal offers “glimpses into the future of digital health” – and suggests what advances in technology could mean for people with Parkinson’s disease. Articles in the issue focus on topics such as how AI could be used in diagnosis, and if smartphones can help to track symptoms.

“The digital revolution has impacted every facet of society, and medical care and research are no exceptions,” the editorial team write. “A variety of digital technologies, designed to either capture clinically relevant health-related data or to facilitate communication between healthcare professionals and patients, have emerged in the past two decades … These digital tools offer several promises.”

How the pandemic catalysed digital acceleration 

So how have these technologies emerged – and what benefits could they offer?

Reflecting on the role the Covid-19 crisis has played in digital acceleration, the journal editors write: “It took a contagion to make patients, physicians and insurers pay better attention.”

As the pandemic limited travel and social interaction, people turned to digital platforms for support – sparking an “unprecedented” uptick in the use of technology as a tool for care. One example of this in action is the expansion of telemedicine programmes around the world.

“Using wearable sensors, clinicians are now still able to monitor their patients’ motor symptoms while they are at home and gain insight into behavioural changes and the implications of social distancing on patients’ non-motor symptoms,” the editors explain.

A clinician and patient consult a wearable tracking watch.

Wearable technology helps patients and clinicians to monitor symptoms.

However, they add that the pandemic has also highlighted current shortcomings in telemedicine – such as the importance of in-person visits in building an “intimate relationship” between healthcare providers and those seeking care.

Despite the challenges that may persist in digital healthcare, the Covid-19 crisis has boosted advances in the field.

“We can say with certainty that the digital revolution has definitely started for Parkinson’s disease care and research,” the team write. “We can almost be equally certain that this is only the beginning.”

What does this mean for people with Parkinson’s?

Challenges in research methods have so far limited assessments of Parkinson’s disease, say Dr Anat Mirelman and her team. Sleep assessments, for instance, are limited as they are “performed in artificial settings at an arbitrary time”.

That’s where healthtech comes in. “Assessing sleep can now be done in the home, passively, and frequently,” they write. “Such measures will vastly expand our knowledge of sleep disorders in those with clinically manifest Parkinson’s.”

In short, they say, “Digital technologies are poised to transform the current practice and enhance our understanding of Parkinson’s disease by extending the reach and expanding the scope of our investigations.”

Not only can new technologies support clinical trials by allowing for more frequent and authentic data, they can also “shine a light on features of the disease that have largely been invisible to us”. From a better understanding of dyskinesia to a “quantification” of tremor to expansions of existing therapies – improved technology could mean improved treatment for those with the condition.

Of course, it’s difficult to foresee exactly how these innovations will impact Parkinson’s community. “The future of digital medicine will likely benefit both patients and healthcare in ways that currently are difficult to predict,” write the editors.

But for anyone keen to investigate how tech could transform treatment, the special issue of the ‘Journal of Parkinson’s Disease’ may be a good place to start.

Read more:

Covid-19 could be “a perfect storm for Parkinson’s disease”, researchers report

Reimagining Parkinson’s healthcare: a patient-focused plan

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