Technology has the potential to transform how we think about our health
The current medical system in most countries works as a reactive setting. The patient goes to the doctor with existing symptoms, the physician diagnoses a condition, then prescribes drugs and/or recommends a treatment. According to the underlying dynamic, the medical professional articulates his decision based on his knowledge and the patient follows orders.
What happens when technology comes into play? What if the patient uses wearables and sensors to monitor vital signs and health parameters? Or what if he crowdsources medical information through patient communities or social media? With the rise of digital technologies, such as artificial narrow intelligence, robotics, virtual reality/augmented reality, telemedicine, 3D-printing, portable diagnostics, health sensors, wearables, etc. the entire structure of healthcare, as well as the roles of patients and doctors, will fundamentally shift from the current status quo. From reactive to preventive medicine. From a hierarchical patient-doctor relationship to a partnership.
While digital health is capable of amazing results (we could enumerate at least 60 things), it does not only mean the utilization of disruptive technologies, it’s rather a cultural transformation. It’s a change in attitude, policy and the entire system. The above-described transformation will not just happen to us, we need to be proactive drivers of such a systemic change. Patients who ask questions, who prepare for their visits to the doctor’s office with their own vital signs and parameters could drive this change. Patients who are not waiting for others to save them, but act as superheroes. And make no mistake, anyone could be a superhero. Starting tomorrow.
Technologies that make you a superhero
1) Become a sleep champion with trackers!
The value of sleep is way too underestimated. You never see superheroes on the big screen having great sleeping skills. Let’s be honest. It’s somewhat understandable from the cinematographers’ point of view: there would be little excitement in looking at Batman’s undisturbed bedtime. Although sleep might not be as sexy as flying over Gotham City’s skyline, its lack could cause many problems. Sleep deprivation has even been used for a long time as a means of interrogation by many secret services, including the CIA.
Moreover, there are millions of people around the globe who suffer from sleep disorders. Surveys conducted by the US National Sleep Foundation revealed that at least 40 million Americans suffer from over 70 different sleep disorders and 60 percent of adults report having sleep problems a few nights a week or more. So, again, why are sleeping skills not considered a superpower?
Luckily, there are great sleep trackers and apps for reaching the state of perfect sleep. Live by Earlysense or Beddit measures your sleep under your mattress, Fitbit One and Surge, Viatom O2 and Withings Pulse works on your wrist. For me, the ultimate solution turned out to be the Pebble Time sensor paired with the Sleep As Android app. You could also become a sleep champion. Just start quantifying your nights. Here is my advice how to do that!
2) Become a germ fighter with genomics!
Superheros never get sick (neither do soap opera drama queens, but that may be another story), never get tired and never catch the flu during the winter season. Unfortunately, that’s also not emphasized enough in the Marvel universe.
Never mind that your heroes take health for granted. Modern medicine helps you become the best germ fighter in your neighborhood. As in the last couple of years, the price of genome sequencing has been dropping drastically, direct to consumer genetic testing appeared on the market. I already have some experience with DNA tests in my life – with Navigenics, Pathway Genomics, My Gentle Labs and Futura Genetics. But there are many more on the market: FamilyTreeDNA, Ancestry.com, Complete Genomics, or WeGene. I also analyzed and regularly re-analyze my own raw data with Promethease. Through the DNA tests, you get to know your body’s genetic composition and prevent diseases that have strong genomic components but might be balanced by lifestyle factors. Such as Type 2 diabetes.
Moreover, the myDNA genetic test promises to help you and your doctor personalize your treatment by selecting the most appropriate medications based on how your body metabolizes drugs and the doses that might work best for you. As a consequence, your physician could improve your health outcomes, reduce the risk of side effects and you could also save a significant amount of money by avoiding ineffective medications.
3) Optimize your strength and muscle power!
Who is more powerful? Superman or Thor? The Green Lantern or the Flash? There are never-ending debates about strength and muscle power in the superhero universe. Although you might never be in the same league with these warriors (well, they are fictional characters anyway), with the help of digital health, you might get closer to the hero of your dreams.
Fitness wearables coupled with great apps are able to create the best training plan based on your personal needs and habits. Do you trust in personal trainers and are you a frequent visitor to the gym? GymWatch was made for you! Is running your favourite pastime? Fitbit Ionic might be the tracker of your dreams. Or Misfit. Or Jawbone. Do you feel the best when you are floating in water? There are plenty of great trackers for you!
And what if you don’t have the motivation, feel lazy and would rather stay at home binge watching Stranger Things on Netflix? In the future, you might have your intelligent assistant to persuade you to go out for a run.
4) Regenerate tissues and muscles!
If it’s not enough for you to optimize your own muscle power, you also want rapid tissue regeneration powers and stamina close to what the Hulk has, novelties in biotechnology and regenerative medicine could bring some good news for you in the future.
Researchers are working on various innovations for shortening the healing process and accelerating the natural responses of the human organism for more effective skin regeneration. For example, ACell’s MatriStem, an extracellular matrix, which helps regrow tissues – it even induced the regrowth of an amputated fingertip in 2010. A very similar extracellular matrix helped treat a US Marine who had lost 70 percent of his thigh muscle in a mortar explosion in Afghanistan. Tissue and muscle regeneration could help anyone with serious injuries in the future to heal faster and shorten the time spent without sports and generally, an active lifestyle. We’ll have plenty of such innovations in the future.
5) Be the king or queen of mindfulness!
Beyond muscle strength, one of the most powerful traits of superheroes could be their ability to play tricks on others minds. The most famous telepath, Professor X, founder and leader of the X-men, has tremendous mental abilities, not only sensing feelings and happenings from far away but actively influencing them.
While technology cannot make you influence others, it can help you change yourself and your own feelings. The awesome Headspace application, the Muse or PIP all could support your quest to reach mindfulness and drive the stress of everyday life away. In the future, it might even be possible to get rid of anxiety and stress by VR therapy. Brennan Spiegel and his team at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center are experimenting with the technology and they found a significant drop in pain scores in case of VR therapies. Spiegel even believes the future will be VR pharmacies with specialists prescribing the appropriate VR treatment to patients.
6) Tame food to be your loyal ally!
The age-old saying goes as you are what you eat. Yet the problem is, you don’t know what you eat and don’t know what your body needs. How much easier was the situation of Popeye the sailor! He knew that he gains a lot of strength from eating spinach, so he kept eating it.
That’s exactly what nutrigenomics offers you. After having your DNA sequenced (perhaps already at home!), a smart app could let you know which food you should eat and what you should avoid at all cost. As we are all genetically different, our diet should be personalized. For example, the California-based start-up, Habit, plans to use genetic markers to identify the ideal meal for each of its customers and send that meal directly to their doors.
And in order to avoid unpleasant surprises in your food – such as gluten, peanut or other ingredients your body dislikes –, great devices are already at your service. For example, Nima developed a gluten-sensor named one of Time Magazine’s 25 best inventions of 2015. It is a portable, nicely designed gadget, able to tell you from a small food sample within two minutes whether the food on your plate contains gluten. Two years later, the firm introduced its peanut sensor, too.
Technologies that make you LOOK LIKE a superhero
Robotic structures called exoskeletons are magnificent metallic creatures, which will truly give the sense of invincibility to people. They are able to help a human being move around and lift huge weights. They can help medical professionals get through long hours of surgery. Also, they can let paralyzed people walk again. For example, a gait-training exoskeleton suit helped Matt Ficarra, paralyzed from the chest down, walk down the aisle on his wedding day!
In the future, soldiers, surgeons, but even warehouse workers and nurses who move around patients will use exoskeletons on a daily basis in order to extend their muscle power, stamina, and weightlifting skills.
2) Portable diagnostic devices and chest patches
When Dr. McCoy from Star Trek grabbed his tricorder and scanned a patient, the portable, handheld device immediately listed vital signs, other parameters, and a diagnosis. A medical tricorder would be the magic wand of physicians.
Although it’s still a dream, through the appearance of digital stethoscopes, portable ECG devices, and multisensory devices, the medical world is getting step by step to that wonderful tricorder. For example, take Viatom Checkme. This is the closest device to that magic wand. It is truly multifaceted: it functions as a health tracker (just like a wearable sensor), records your ECG (electrophysiology of your heart), measures your blood oxygen saturation, the number of steps you take a day, serves as a thermometer, a blood pressure tracker, sleep monitor and a reminder. It’s quite an all-in-one package.
In the future, diagnostic devices could even become smaller and more flexible. Imagine chest patches and digital tattoos detecting diseases and measuring vital signs on the go. Researchers have already created an electronic skin patch that senses excess glucose in sweat and automatically administers drugs by heating up microneedles that penetrate the skin.
Although Frankenstein’s monster fabricated hastily from “exhausted” body parts has been living on paper and movie screens for centuries, the concept seems to be growing beyond pure imagination. Scientists are extensively experimenting with lab-grown tissues and organs.
A team at the Spanish Universidad Carlos III de Madrid in collaboration with the bioengineering firm BioDan Group has presented a prototype for a 3D bioprinter that can create an entirely functional human skin. James Yoo and scientists at the Wake Forest School of Medicine in the US have also developed a similar prototype that can create a synthetic skin. San Diego-based bioprinting firm Organovo teamed up with cosmetics giant L’Oréal in 2015 to supply 3D-printed skin. An Italian expert team was even able to save a kid with a serious genetic condition by growing new skin for him.
Organovo is not only interested in dermatology, but in growing kidney, liver and other organs in a petri dish. They announced successfully bio-printed liver tissues in 2014 and they seemed to be 4-6 years away from printing liver parts for transplantation. These bio-printed livers could also be used in the pharmaceutical industry to replace animal models for analyzing the toxicity of new drugs.
4) Digital contact lenses for supervision
The all-seeing gaze is such a universal wish of the human race that it has been present with us for several millennia. Gods and goddesses in ancient religions possessed it, and of course, the Christian God has that capacity, too. Although we are very far from it, modern technology is taking huge steps towards supervision.
Although Google stopped developing its augmented reality glass, Google Glass, they did not give up on combining vision and technology. The search engine giant and Novartis signed an agreement in order to cooperate on the development of the digital contact lens patented in 2014. According to the plans, through the lens, you can get more information from the digital world plus it can measure blood glucose levels from tears as an added benefit.
In the future, we might have contact lenses to see in the dark, look at far-away objects in detail, zoom in, even make notes about it. So, you might not get away from the policeman when speeding with your self-driving Porsche.
5) Brain microchip for super hearing
Beyond possessing X-ray, heat or microscopic vision, Clark Kent alias Superman can also pride himself on super hearing. He could differentiate between various noises, and sense sounds beyond human hearing.
Currently, scientists are experimenting with various brain implants that might help restore hearing for the deaf and restore sight for some blind people. Imagine that these brain chips go a huge leap further! What if with specialized cochlear implants people could listen to the noise around them selectively? That you could be able to listen to conversations from across the room while tuning out the noise. With the recent speed in brain microchip development, this might happen sooner than we think!
6) Earbuds making you multilingual as Babel fish
“Meanwhile, the poor Babel fish, by effectively removing all barriers to communication between different races and cultures, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation”, says Douglas Adams in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It goes completely against the common notion that if people spoke a common language, there would be peace in the world. But no matter what we think of communication among people, it’s sure that we are getting closer to a reality without language barriers by several Babelfish appearing on the market.
In October 2107, Google launched a set of Bluetooth earbuds called the Pixel Buds with one standout feature: instant translation between 40 different languages using a Pixel smartphone. Meanwhile, Microsoft’s Skype Translator can do real-time translation between eight languages over a voice or video call or between 50 languages for text chat, making conference calling between nations and languages possible. In the future, you might have a small earbud and switch from Chinese to Icelandic than back to English within 5 minutes of conversation without any problems. Let’s be hopeful we don’t have to learn the grammar of another language anymore!
Although it seems so, this is not science fiction. It is more and more stepping into reality. Whether it is about muscle power, vision, hearing, eating or sleeping, amazing technologies come to your aid. So, it depends only on you in the end, whether you’ll become a superhero. The means are available.