Words by Katie Puckett
By 2050, there will be more than 1 billion people over 70. Who’s going to take care of us?
As the century progresses, the global population will become progressively older. In 2010, there were 350 million people older than 70, and 11.8 people of working age for each of them. By 2030, the ratio of workers to over-70s will have tumbled to 7.9, and by the end of the century, it will be just 3.4.
The healthcare workforce is larger than at any time in history. In OECD countries, employment in health and social work has grown by 42% since 2000, to encompass one in ten jobs.
But there is still a shortage. Today only half of all countries have enough healthcare workers to deliver quality services, and no country is on track to meet all of the World Health Organization’s health-related Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. The ageing population and the rise in non-communicable diseases will generate demand for 40 million extra healthcare workers by 2030 — which would mean doubling the current workforce. Without action, the WHO warns that there will be a shortfall of 18 million healthcare workers, particularly in lower-income countries.
“We do not have the capacity to meet growing demand. That means we have to do things very, very differently”Suzanne MacCormick, WSP
The healthcare workers of the future are more likely to come from Africa than anywhere else. Only Africa is projected to have an old-age dependency ratio in double figures by the middle of this century, with just under 16 workers to older people, compared to 3.5 in Northern America and just 2.7 in Europe.
Can technology fill the gap?
The last decade has seen a resurgence in health R&D, particularly in medical technology. Healthcare is second only to IT in research, with worldwide R&D spending reaching US$177bn in 2019.
The last ten years have seen strong growth in patents too. In the world’s top science and technology clusters, medtech is now the most frequent field of patenting. But this likely underestimates the actual level of innovation, notes the World Intellectual Property Organization, as health-related R&D is taking place in many other fields, including artificial intelligence. Regulatory agencies such as the US Food and Drug Administration have approved record numbers of novel medical devices over the last five years, heralding an era of breakthroughs in material science, digital health and other technologies, while venture capital is flooding into health start-ups.
New tools will diagnose problems, cure diseases, improve efficiency and disrupt business models. Genetics, stem cell research and 3D printing will enable more personalized treatments, while automation, data analytics and AI will underpin everything from robotic surgery and diagnosis-by-algorithm to patient monitoring and caregiver support. Wearables will prevent illness by flagging risk factors and nudging us towards healthier lifestyles.
Healthcare is one of the biggest targets for the big four tech companies, with Alphabet, Apple, Amazon and Microsoft all investing heavily in R&D, acquisitions and collaborations. Google has shown that its AI can detect diseases such as lung or breast cancer and acute kidney injury earlier and with greater accuracy than traditional methods. In a study with more than 400,000 participants, researchers at Stanford University found the Apple Watch reliably identified heart rate irregularities that were confirmed to be atrial fibrillation, a leading cause of stroke and hospitalization.