The Medical Futurist - Grand Challenges

Embrace Disruptive Medical Technologies

Medical professionals and patients must prepare for a technological revolution in medicine - the only way to make healthcare effective and more humanistic.



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The Story of Digital Health (Part 1)



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The Digital Doctor

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The Story of Digital Health (Part 1)

Currently prevalent medical technology is decades old. If you look into a medical black bag, the technology there is obsolete – 150 years old stethoscope lying next to 135 years old blood pressure cuff. While the world is growing digital, designing medical technology is still a painfully slow process. In our caution to save lives, we’ve hobbled our efforts to innovate.

Obsolete medical techonogies
Technologies physicians have to work with today are obsolete.

However, disruptive technology is already in development for many problems in healthcare. Hundreds of thousands have access to their genetic data, revealing what medical conditions they are susceptible to. Wearable devices let us measure vital signs and health parameters anywhere, not just the doctor’s office. The precision of surgical robots lets doctors perform previously impossible procedures. Exoskeletons let paralyzed people walk again, and smart algorithms help analyze radiology images. News every day make us feel as if we live in science fiction.

The first paralyzed Dutch patient
The first paralyzed Dutch patient who can walk again with his own exoskeleton (Source:Sint Maartenskliniek)

But when we walk into the GP’s office, it’s hard to feel the same. Part of the problem is that disruptive innovations are little known among patients, doctors and even regulators.

1. Medical education is focused on age old, proven technologies, leaving students unprepared to embrace modern ones – there are only a handful of courses worldwide that teach digital literacy to medical professionals.

2. For sure, regulators are simply as much in the dark as the rest of us. Approval processes were designed with 20th century technology in mind, however, as healthcare is going digital, Moore’s Law speeds up medical innovation as well. With massive advances springing up every week, there’s simply no time to stick to established methods of regulation.

3. Disruptive medical innovations are often not practical enough to be actually used in the clinical settings or directly by patients. Their creators have focused on research, but the history of computing shows that to truly transform our everyday lives, technological advance must be made useable by a large group of people. Health sensors provide raw data, but rarely give guidance to their users about what it means, and how to act on it, leaving patients frustrated.

Timeline of medical innovation
The velocity of medical innovation has increased massively in the last 50 years

The trust in physicians can also be threatened by technology, if healthcare does not embrace it. Even now, patients are using their own skills and technology to make health decisions – Google is already used by over 90% of patients to research medical information. In the meantime, though medical outcomes have never been better, trust in physicians is at an all-time low (34% in the US compared to 73% in 1966) – evident in the popularity of alternative therapies and the anti-vaccine movement. Algorithms, apps and services like IBM Watson, smart health trackers and cheap genome sequencing will hand even more power to patients who will be able to make medical decisions without consulting doctors. But without the expertise of physicians, patients can fall prey to misinformation or faulty technology.

Patients search for medical information online
Patients are taking charge of their health, trust in physicians is decreasing.

Disruptive medical innovations could change healthcare for the better. Technology in the clinic has been shown to help doctors spend more time with each patient. What’s more, with telemedicine, smart algorithms and health trackers making it possible to stream medical data from every home, patients wouldn’t have to wait weeks for a doctor’s appointment or have to diagnose themselves, but would get the help they need near instantly. Studies have shown that medical outcomes increase and costs go down when technology like artificial intelligence is combined with the human touch of physicians.

Artificial intelligence algorithms help better diagnose diseases.
Patient outcomes increase when physician decisions are aided by artificial intelligence.

If we do not embrace disruptive technology, the doctor-patient relationship may change forever – for the worse. Patients who are entrepreneurial and skilled enough can hack their own health which might lead to biological differences because of financial and resource disparities. Matthew James, born with deformed limbs, offered to put the logo of a company on his prosthesis if they support him, and received the prosthetics he needed. If the potential of medical technology is denied for most of the population, a new social divide will open up in how healthcare is delivered that we cannot tolerate. The future of healthcare must be equally available to all, not even more segregated than it is now.

Prosthetic hand
Matthew James received support for a new prosthesis after offering to display a company’s logo on it

To embrace disruptive medical technologies, the following steps must be taken:

1) Improving medical training, combining digital & health literacy to prepare a generation of physicians who are open to technology and innovation. Courses such as the Social MEDia Course can teach doctors how to use social media to engage with patients and peers.

2) We need to educate patients to make most of new technologies, and take the reins of their own health. Mayo Clinic already provides great, reliable online resources on hundreds of diseases.

3) Healthcare agencies and regulators like the FDA must understand the coming changes – both the dangers and the value that can be gained. Passing the GINA Law to protect sensitive patient data and organizing a Patient Advisory Board to include patients in designing healthcare are promising steps forward. Only understanding can arm regulators to walk the narrow tightrope between opening up space innovation and protecting all healthcare stakeholders from the dangers of rampant technological change.

My mission as the Medical Futurist is to raise awareness about the coming waves of change, and bridge the gaps between innovators, regulators, industry leaders, patients and physicians, fostering communication about key issues and keeping the public informed about the technological revolution in medicine; the ethical challenges and the amazing opportunities. I hope to help keep the human touch in medicine intact while facilitating its transformation through disruptive technologies.

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