Patent Index 2022

Smart health

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Innovation in smart health reflects a convergence of the top three technology fields at the European Patent Office (EPO). In 2022, the surge in digital communication filings continued as the world's major technology companies competed to take wireless networks to the next level. Increased connectivity has enabled health services traditionally confined to hospitals and clinics to be delivered in people's homes and supported in daily life, using specially designed smart devices.

European patent applications

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On a similar basis, a choice of virtual health assistants is on its way, as consumer and medical devices increasingly converge too. A range of health and fitness features now appear in "wearables": personal wristwatches with sensors and trackers to monitor heart rate, breathing, and skin temperature, as well as blood sugar, pressure and oxygen saturation.

Smart prosthetics Smart prosthetics exemplify the convergence of medical and digital technologies. David Gow (UK), a path-breaking inventor in the field, was a finalist in the European Inventor Award 2013.

As the area of smart health develops, remote care platforms created by specialist healthcare corporations can increasingly connect to these devices, enabling continuous real-time monitoring in everyday life. Innovation in computer technology, where filings from EPO member states rose 11.5% in 2022, has helped further advance the functionality of these devices. Thanks to the latest developments in computer processing capacity and the miniaturisation of circuitry, more and more data can be processed, including at source. In fact, the development of digital ecosystems is enabling breakthroughs across the board, including in diagnostics, but also in drug discovery and development, robotics and therapy-related inventions.  

The rise of smart health goes hand-in-hand with advances in artificial intelligence (AI), which have revolutionised healthcare informatics. Between 2017 and 2021, there was more private investment in AI in the medical and healthcare sectors globally than almost any other. This follows a steep increase of venture capital invested in AI start-ups over the past fifteen years and a rapid increase in the number of these start-ups. In parallel, the immense growth in computer processing capacity has contributed to reducing the costs and time involved in training AI. This has eased the implementation of machine learning and image data processing across many areas, helping to harvest new insights from big data. Dramatic growth in patenting activity relating to the use of AI has followed, especially in diagnostic technologies, but also in areas such as digital surgery and new therapies. AI is being adopted in clinical workflows too, including to improve the patient experience and optimise the use of resources. Predictive analytics, for example, is supporting a growing emphasis on preventative rather than reactive healthcare.


There are strict constraints on what can and cannot be patented. Tools used in diagnosis (e.g. chemical test kits, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines, etc.) are patentable, even if methods of diagnosis (with or without AI) are not. However, a computer programme or processor configured to make a diagnosis using AI (e.g. with a neural network) is in principle patentable. For more on this topic, see:

Further, AI assistance can potentially support people with chronic illnesses in their daily routines, both in terms of monitoring and medication reminders. AI is also increasingly being integrated into telehealth initiatives. The anonymisation of patient data is another area where AI is used, including with a view to creating federated data networks that can support interdisciplinary research across institutions, whether regionally or worldwide. Gathering patient data from multiple studies into vast pools used to be prohibitively expensive, but now AI enables clinicians to spot trends or compare outcomes across thousands of subjects.

Meanwhile, the life-long learning and specialist expertise of medical professionals can be supplemented by AI-driven image recognition and deep learning in multiple fields, including radiology, dermatology and ophthalmology, helping to improve the accuracy of cancer diagnosis for example. Numerous reports show that AI now has a higher success rate than human operatives when it comes to spotting traces of cancer in thousands of scanned images.

European patent applications

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Further, ultrasound probes are now available that can be plugged into a smartphone and used anywhere. They are a fraction of the cost of larger conventional machines and less invasive. They are also more versatile and, thanks to tailormade microchips and apps, can instantly adapt to the needs of the patient without requiring a change of probe, whether the patient is, for example, a child or an adult. Just as AI support can already assist with achieving optimal medical images in the clinic, developments such as these may help increase access to healthcare globally in the future by enabling anyone to perform medical imaging anywhere, any time.

Case study: Micrel Medical Devices 

Micrel Medical DevicesThis family-owned company founded in Greece in 1980 specialises in the design, manufacture and marketing of "smart" drug delivery systems for hospital and home care applications. One example is a rhythmic web-programmable ambulatory pump for clinical research. These innovative and user-friendly infusion pump systems are tailormade for delivering specific therapies, including pain control, parenteral and intravenous nutrition, as well as treatments for Parkinson's disease and cancer. The products are small in size and have a low power consumption, which makes them particularly user-friendly. Read the full report in our SME case studies.

Whereas the Internet of Things enables many of the benefits of this data-driven transformation to be accessed, monitored and enhanced from almost anywhere, in terms of the countries of origin of patent applications, EPO member states continue to lead in medical technology overall. The US is not far behind and major US corporations specialising in the field dominate the top applicant table. Last year, Johnson & Johnson significantly increased its filings on the previous year to overtake Philips, which topped the ranking in 2021. The global innovation ecosystem is characterised by larger players that are increasingly partnering with or acquiring specialist AI platforms and data analysis companies, while in Europe often highly adaptable SMEs continue to operate in niche areas such as drug delivery systems for both hospital and home care.

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A new era of connectivity

By contrast, it is the larger applicants from the US and Asia that continue to drive the continued boom in digital technologies. These are for the most part the top applicants at the EPO overall. They are enabling a new era of connectivity, including among research institutes, medical technology specialists, healthcare providers and consumer devices. Meanwhile, US applicants continue to lead in computer technology, even if the increase in filings from EPO member states slightly reduced their lead in 2022. However, while each major economic area has its own strengths, the solutions emerging at the interface of the medical and computer sciences depend on interoperability around the world. This is in turn leading to new partnerships between major applicants across the top three technology fields.

There are countless examples of the benefits. While wireless networks enable medical technology manufacturers to centrally monitor their imaging machines, for example, AI-driven predictive analytics also increase efficiency when it comes to machine maintenance and supply chain management. This can prevent disruption in the service provided to patients across multiple sites. AI in camera-based sensing technology can also help to correctly position a patient for an MRI scan, for example, and even enable the machine to monitor the rhythm of a patient's breathing. These advances can improve the patient experience, reduce stress all round and provide enhanced working conditions for medical professionals.

Case study: First-ever 3D videos of organs in action

First-ever 3D videos of organs in actionThe recent integration of AI into medical technologies tends to build on decades of innovation. MRI is one of the world's most widely used diagnostic tools. The road to success was paved by a revolutionary scanning technique known as fast low angle shot (FLASH). Perfected by German physical chemist Jens Frahm in 1985, FLASH accelerated MRI scans by a factor of 100. Reducing scanning time from half a day to a few minutes, it soon became the clinical standard. The inventor's follow-up, FLASH 2, delivered the first moving MRI images in real time at up to 100 frames per second. It also provided the first-ever three-dimensional videos of pumping hearts, moving joints and complex processes like swallowing or speech formation. "We can now visualise physiological processes that we have never seen before," says Frahm, who won the European Inventor Award in 2018 in the Research category.


While ethical debates continue to explore such issues as the uses of patient data in the health sector and questions surrounding liability when it comes to AI-informed decision-making, the benefits of advances in smart health are indisputable. Data-pooling and analysis were key to the response to COVID-19, including to map the dynamics of each new variant, and will continue to be central to future breakthroughs too. The next frontier in smart health may lie within the quantum innovation ecosystem. Here, emerging technologies such as quantum simulation could potentially accelerate drug discovery further still by generating new insights into the way molecules interact. The area of quantum technologies is one that the EPO is monitoring closely in an ongoing series of Patent insight reports.

Inclusive innovation in smart health can be expected to continue long into the future. This will be of particular value to populations that can access wireless networks but not necessarily a specialist clinic or major hospital. As healthcare costs among aging populations continue to increase at a rate that tends to exceed growth in GDP, it is hoped that smart health can also lead to gains in efficiency that reduce costs and enable greater access to the best possible healthcare, including preventive healthcare.

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