As we plan for 2021, we also recollect on the tumultuous year of 2020. From a health perspective, it has been one turned upside down with a deadly global pandemic reorienting how we live our lives and relate to others. The COVID-19 pandemic has justifiably dominated headlines and attention from media, policymakers, and health officials alike.

While it is clearly the defining public health, cultural, economic, even political event of the year, the pandemic shouldn’t obscure the fact that 2020 was also a time of great medical innovation. The medical community made noteworthy advances throughout 2020 even amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

From breakthroughs in oncology, gene therapies, and heart health, to the development of COVID-19 vaccines that are now being administered around the world, there is a lot that the medical community can be proud of in 2020.

1. Oncology advancements: Preventive techniques to targeted therapies

“2020 has been a year that’s seen cancer research push forward on multiple fronts” shares Dr Benjamin Neel, PhD, director of the Cancer Center at NY University.

He shared technologies are in development for early detection of cancer by way of blood tests. “It’s been known for quite some time that tumors release DNA into the bloodstream, we have technology developing from the standpoint of monitoring tumors, conducting sensitive tests for tumors, for tests for recurrence of cancers and protein-based tests” Dr Neel shared.

He also cited technology that modulates the regulatory DNA sequence patterns, which refers to the part of the DNA molecule that can change the way a gene expresses itself in a living thing, to pinpoint when methylation patterns might point to the development of cancer.

2. Breakthroughs in heart disease

Recently, the American Heart Association released its own list of innovations in medical treatments. American Heart Association President Dr Mitchell S V Elkind, MS, FAAN, FAHA, shared, “All of these advances over the past year reflect connections between seemingly disparate areas of medicine and the fact that we are most successful when we break down the barriers between fields.”

When asked if there was one particular heart health innovation that stood out the most to him, Elkind said that what resonated with him was something not tied to “fancy medications or groundbreaking research.” He emphasised, “In order to tackle an issue as wide ranging as heart disease, for instance, it takes an interdisciplinary, comprehensive approach.”

“We also learned more this year about the unexpected ways in which medicines designed to treat diabetes, the sodium glucose transporter 2 inhibitors, help patients with heart failure, even those without diabetes,” he added.

“An analysis of people from across the US showed that rates of blood pressure spikes have been increasing in the US, after almost two decades of better control. High blood pressure is one of the most important and easily treated risk factors for stroke and heart disease, and so this backsliding is especially alarming,” he added.

“Improving access to quality care is one of the best ways we have to improve health, and that is where we at the American Heart Association will be placing our efforts in the coming years,” he said, emphasising the need for more primary care health physicians with a focus on preventative health.

Smartphone connected Pacemaker Devices

Implantable devices like pacemakers and defibrillators deliver electrical impulses to the heart muscle chambers to contract and pump blood to the body. They are used to prevent or correct arrhythmias, heartbeats that are uneven, too slow or too fast. Remote monitoring of these devices is an essential part of care.

Traditionally, remote monitoring of this device takes place through a bed-side console that transmits the pacemaker or defibrillator data to the physician. Though millions of patients have pacemakers and defibrillators, many lack a basic understanding of the device or how it functions and adherence to remote monitoring has been suboptimal.

Bluetooth-enabled pacemaker devices can remedy these issues of disconnection between patients and their cardiac treatment. Used in conjunction with a mobile app, these connected devices allow patients greater insight into the health data from the pacemakers and transmit the health information to their physicians.

3. A blood test for Alzheimer’s disease

This year, a possible breakthrough in Alzheimer’s disease research and treatment came in the form of a blood test that can diagnose this progressive form of dementia.

There are as many as five million persons living with Alzheimer’s disease in the US, farless for the total globally, a number that will likely triple by 2060, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

While the news is huge, the test is still in the trial phase. If ultimately approved, a simple test for the condition would be a game changer.

A look to the future: Telemedicine

The COVID-19 pandemic saw an increased adoption of telemedical practices as clinicians needed to conduct patient visits online. An increasingly virtual care model and increased consumer adoption came by way of fundamental shifts in policy at both the government and provider level.

Since March 2020, the US state and federal regulators have moved quickly to reduce barriers to telehealth, understanding that these new tools can speed access to care while protecting healthcare workers and community members. These measures opened the floodgates for telehealth, allowing for new programmes and the expansion of existing networks.

As 2020 dropped its curtain, and we welcome 2021, experts are looking to a more hopeful year, especially with a greater utilisation of Telemedicine.