Healthcare Should Be Invisible
What if healthcare worked as an unseeable fairy mother with a swarm of digital helpers? In the background, many digital tools, smart algorithms, health trackers and wearables would work for your well-being discreetly, so you could be sure that you are taken care of, but you would only sense that on rare occasions. How would you fancy the invisible healthcare system? The Medical Futurist believes that we should move in that direction.
Healthcare should be what Zorg showed us in The Fifth Element
Do you remember the scene from the brilliant Luc Besson movie, The Fifth Element, where Gary Oldman as one of the leading antagonists, the evil Mr. Zorg, explains to his adversary, Father Vito Cornelius, why he aims at creating chaos? As an illustration of his monologue, he tosses a glass of water off the table smashing it to pieces. A small door opens, and dozens of little robots buzz around to sweep up the glass shards, to clean the floor and provide another glass of water as if nothing happened. Although the overall message of the scene goes entirely against the notion of providing care and healing, the idea that all the little helpers appear exclusively when they are needed, that’s something to embrace.
Imagine if healthcare worked similarly. You would only feel its presence when you had a problem. Otherwise, it would be completely invisible. In the background, smart algorithms would process the data coming from your health sensors and wearables constantly monitoring your vital signs. From time to time, you would receive notifications about your health status, but it would be very discreet and diplomatic. However, in case of an emergency or a grim prediction, a swarm of notifications would be sent to every possible caregiver. Emergency services or your doctor would come to you as the point-of-care to examine your status, and you would be taken care of as soon as possible. Diseases would be caught in their early phase or even before they happen. How far do you think we are from this?
What does healthcare look like today?
Since the dawn of medicine, the ultimate goal of physicians was to measure health parameters somehow and to record measurements somehow to set up a diagnosis and offer treatment. When patients experienced symptoms, usually in their heavily burdening form, they had to go to a point-of-care to receive some care.
In the last couple of years, the fundamental principles of healthcare seem to be under massive attack from technology. While in the past, the question was how to measure vital signs, currently, the problem is how to measure them more accurately and easily. Medical devices follow a general trend to produce more and more miniaturized, digitized and connected objects for personal use. Telemedicine, portable diagnostics, medical drones or 3D printing push patients to become the point-of-care, while genomics and artificial intelligence offer a move from reactive to preventive medicine.
Still, the latest technologies are merely promises for a rosier future. Even in the 21st century, a simple tool such as telemedicine seems to be science fiction while in fact, it is just digital communication. After 2000 years of progress (evidence-based medicine, quality control, advanced technologies from radiology to oncology, better diagnostics, more precise treatments, better targeted public health methods, etc.), we still
- use big, clunky devices to measure vital signs only physicians can interpret;
- go to healthcare institutions for help;
- try to figure out what’s wrong only when we already have symptoms and diseases;
- don’t comply with the therapy we are prescribed – at least WHO reports that only around 50 percent of people typically follow their doctors’ orders when it comes to taking prescription drugs;
- we get medications that usually work for our population, and not personalized for our own organism; and
- our lifestyle, genetic background, and opinions are rarely involved in decision-making.
Technologies could make healthcare invisible
Digital technologies could help make patients the point-of-care for diagnostics, bring healthcare from a proactive to a preventive field, provide personalized care for the people not for populations. Through arriving at this stage, healthcare would become invisible in practice, and people would only feel its presence when there is genuinely a need for it – meaning a preventive measure to avoid a full-blown disease or an immediate intervention in case of an urgency.
Here, we enlisted the digital tools that could make healthcare invisible.
1) Digital tattoos for measuring vital signs and parameters
Tiny, elastic skin patches could measure medical information discreetly. 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. In a groundbreaking experiment, researchers from the University of Minnesota even managed to 3D print a digital tattoo on a human hand!
2) Deep learning algorithms for interpreting the data, providing personalized care and preventing diseases
Deep learning algorithms are already used to make sense of huge chunks of medical data as well as to provide connections within databases that humans are not able to distill. The flagship artificial intelligence platforms, IBM Watson or Google Deepmind, analyze millions of data points per second, can help interpret data, suggest treatment paths – or provide accurate predictions.
For example, Google researchers predicted cardiovascular risk factors not previously thought to be quantifiable in retinal images using artificial intelligence. And this is just the beginning!
3) Virtual reality for making painful or scary experiences more pleasant
Virtual reality could mask the entire healthcare reality for patients, which is often full of pain, discomfort, and fears. Or, as Churchill said in his famous speech, blood, toil, tears and sweat. VR can support better management of chronic pain, can treat anxieties and phobias or help survive medical events, from as painful as childbirth until vaccination.
For example, not only does virtual reality make rehabilitation from neck, spinal or other injuries faster and easier, but you could escape the confinement of your hospital room and travel to Iceland.
4) Gamified apps and sensors for living a healthy lifestyle with fun
In a healthcare made invisible, various wearables and health trackers would serve the purpose of taking care of the individual. Tiny sensors would send information to our smartphones about our health parameters and vital signs continuously and without the need of our surveillance. Certain sensors would only activate their measurements in specific cases – for example, tiny portable diagnostic devices in emergency situations or in case of alerts coming from other wearables.
Other trackers would take a step further. They would not only offer insights into our organism, but they would gently push users towards living a healthy lifestyle through gamification. Challenges, competitions, discounts or games would serve as incentives for living a healthier life.
5) Nutrigenomics for the best food at every meal
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. That’s nutrigenomics in a nutshell.
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.
6) AR for providing information about drugs or treatments immediately
Augmented reality could bring essential information to the sight of doctors as well as patients whenever it’s necessary. For example, if you are in the Netherlands, with the Layar reality browser combined with the AED4EU app, you can project the exact location of the nearest defibrillators on the screen of your phone, and it would take a minute to find them and help those in need. Moreover, patients can see how the drug works in 3D in front of their eyes instead of just reading long descriptions on the bottle.
7) Telemedicine for accessing care wherever we are
Telehealth solutions allow anyone to get in touch, ask and receive responses to questions that need to be answered instantly at any time they arise. They might eradicate the term “waiting time”entirely from our dictionaries – and might make healthcare invisible through making it as efficient as possible.
Telemedicine essentially enables individuals having more straightforward questions to reach a doctor easily and gives a chance for people living in remote areas to still get proper care and only visit the GP if necessary.
8) Chatbots could become the first line in primary care
Beyond telemedicine, chatbots will also make healthcare more invisible through radically reducing waiting time. Chatbots are essentially applications powered by smart algorithms; they help patients track and make sense of their health data, support medication management and disperse simple medical advice.
For example, Izzy helps women track their period and serves as a birth control pill reminder. Bots like HealthTap or Your.Md aim to help patients find a solution to the most common symptoms. In the future, chatbots could become the first contact point of patients with healthcare – anytime, anywhere, so they could never feel being left alone.
9) Medical drones for delivering aid to emergency situations
In future medical emergencies or in territories where the transportation infrastructure is broken or scarce, medical drones will mean the fastest answer. They will fly the extra mile in delivering drugs, vaccines, blood or organs.
One of the finest examples on the market is the Silicon Valley start-up, Zipline. In 2016, the Rwandan government teamed up with the company to operate the first national scale drone delivery service for medical supplies. After its Rwandan success, the White House reached out to Zipline. They expressed interest in delivering medicine and blood to rural parts of the US.
10) 3D printers for creating anything from casts to tissues on-site
In the future, 3D printing could ensure that all the necessary medical equipment is near the patient whenever it’s needed. Do you need finger splints or plaster casts in remote areas of the Amazonas jungle? It’s already possible! Ian McHale, a senior at the US Steinert High School, created a blueprint for producing finger splints. A low-end 3D printer can print his splint quickly and affordably, about 2¢ worth of ABS plastic in about ten minutes!
However, it’s not just about medical equipment. We can already print out drugs! Imagine that your doctor would prescribe you some pain medication and by the time you arrive home, your 3D printer created it in the right dosage. Would be amazing, isn’t it?
The Medical Futurist could also imagine a good healthcare system as a good referee in a football game. If you don’t realize they are there, they probably do a good job.
Now if something is wrong with our health, all our life turns upside down, and we have to deal with it with an immense power and dedication. Instead, digital health could make it invisible in the future, so you don’t even know you are being cared for.
- News shaping the future of healthcare
- Advice on taking charge of your health
- Reviews of the latest health technology