Be bold, curious and informed!
Are you afraid that robots will take over the jobs of nurses, doctors and other healthcare professionals? Are you scared that artificial intelligence will control the world within a couple of years? Do you have nightmares about virtual reality addicted kids and adults running around in their non-existent dream world? Are you frightened to have a genetic test because it might reveal the day of your death?
These are all half-truths, fake news and other imaginary dystopias. In a more fashionable way: alternative facts about the future of medicine. However, these all have one thing in common: the fear about the unknown place called future and what it might bring upon us.
But no matter how scary the future might seem at the moment, we cannot stop technological development; and sooner or later we will find out that whole areas of our lives have been transformed through various digital technologies. Thus, our task at the moment is to face our fears about the future with courage; to turn to technologies with an open mind and to prepare for the changing world with as much knowledge as possible.
Technology and humans hand-in-hand for a better healthcare
I honestly believe that this is the only way forward. Technology can only aid and improve our lives, if we stand on its shoulder and if we are always (at least) two steps ahead it. But if we adhere to this rule, the cooperation between people and technology could result in amazing achievements.
In medicine and healthcare, digital technology could help transform unsustainable healthcare systems into sustainable ones, equalize the relationship between medical professionals and patients, provide cheaper, faster and more effective solutions for diseases – technologies could win the battle for us against cancer, AIDS or Ebola – and could simply lead to healthier individuals living in healthier communities.
But as the saying goes, one has to be a master of his own house, so it is worth starting “the future” with the betterment of our own health through digital technologies, as well as changing our own attitude towards the concept of health as such and towards medicine and healthcare.
And what does it all look like in practice? Let’s look at ten ways how technology transforms healthcare!
1) Artificial intelligence
I believe that artificial intelligence has the potential to redesign healthcare completely. AI algorithms are able to mine medical records, design treatment plans or create drugs way faster than any current actor on the healthcare palette including any medical professional. Atomwise uses supercomputers that root out therapies from a database of molecular structures. Last year, the start-up launched a virtual search for safe, existing medicines that could be redesigned to treat the Ebola virus. They found two drugs predicted by the company’s AI technology which may significantly reduce Ebola infectivity. Imagine what horizons open for humanity if early utilization of AI results in such amazing discoveries!
2) Virtual reality
Virtual reality is changing the lives of patients and physicians alike. In the future, you might watch operations as if you wielded the scalpel or you could travel to Iceland or home, while you are lying on a hospital bed. Embodied Labs created “We Are Alfred” by using VR technology to show young medical students what ageing means. Everyone can be the hypothetical Alfred for 7 minutes, and experience how it feels like to live as a 74 year-old man with audio-visual impairments. The developers’ ultimate goal is to solve the disconnection between young doctors and elderly patients due to their huge age difference. Fostering empathy between caretakers and their charges is much easier when physicians can see things from the patients’ perspectives.
3) Augmented reality
Augmented reality differs from VR in two respects: users do not lose touch with reality and it puts information into eyesight as fast as possible. These distinctive features enable AR to become a driving force in the future of medicine; both on the healthcare providers’ and the receivers’ side.
In case of medical professionals, it might help medical students prepare better for real-life operations, as well as enables surgeons to enhance their capabilities. For example, Medsights Tech developed a software to test the feasibility of using augmented reality to create accurate 3-dimensional reconstructions of tumors. The complex image reconstructing technology basically empowers surgeons with x-ray views – without any radiation exposure, in real time. In case of patients, AR might help them describe their symptoms more accurately or pharma companies might offer more innovative drug information to patients.
4) Healthcare trackers, wearables and sensors
As the future of medicine and healthcare is closely connected to the empowerment of patients as well as individuals taking care of their own health through technologies, I cannot leave out health trackers, wearables and sensors from my selection. They are great devices to get to know more about ourselves and retake control over our own lives.
No matter whether you would like to manage your weight, your stress level, your cognitive capabilities better or you would like to reach an overall fit and energetic state, I can offer you my palette of wearables starting from Fitbit Surge for fitness tracking through the Pebble Time and Sleep As Android for sleep tracking or the Muse headband for enhanced meditation.
5) Medical tricorder
When it comes to gadgets and instant solutions, there is the great dream of every healthcare professional: to have one all-mighty and omnipotent device, with which you can diagnose and analyze every disease. It even materialized – although only on screen – as the medical tricorder in Star Trek. When Dr McCoy grabbed his tricorder and scanned a patient, the portable, hand–held device immediately listed vital signs, other parameters, and a diagnosis. It was the Swiss Army knife for physicians.
Although the currently available products (e.g. Viatom CheckMe), are a bit far from the tricorder, we will get there soon. You will see high–power microscopes with smartphones, for example, analyzing swab samples and photos of skin lesions. Sensors could pick up abnormalities in DNA, or detect antibodies and specific proteins. An electronic nose, an ultrasonic probe, or almost anything we have now could be yoked to a smartphone and augment its features. And we have to get ready for it!
6) Genome sequencing
The whole Human Genome Project cost approximately $2.7 billion for the US government, which is an insanely huge amount of money. Especially if you consider that in January, 2017, DNA sequencing giant Illumina unveiled a new machine that the company says is “expected one day” to order up your whole genome for less than $100. This would mean that you might have a cheaper genetic test than a general blood test (for which prices vary between approximately $10-150). Mind-blowing!
And it has so much potential! You can get to know valuable information about your drug sensitivity, multifactorial or monogenic medical conditions and even your family history. Moreover, there are already various fields leveraging the advantages of genome sequencing, such as nutrigenomics, the cross-field of nutrition, dietetics and genomics. Some companies such as the California-based start-up, Habit, are offering personalized diets based on genetic codes. Or consider the Nova Scotia-based performance company, Athletigen Technology Inc. operating on the cross-field of sports and genomics. It aims to use collected DNA information of sportsmen to improve their performance, health and safety.
7) Revolutionizing drug development
Currently, the process of developing new drugs is too long and too expensive. However, there are ways to improve it ranging from artificial intelligence to better organizational procedures. The most revolutionary is the concept of in silico trials. They are individualized computer simulations used in the development or regulatory evaluation of a medicinal product, device or intervention.
While completely simulated clinical trials are not feasible with current technology and understanding of biology, its development would be expected to have major benefits over current in vivo clinical trials, and research on it is being pursued. Imagine if we could test thousands of new potential drugs on billions of virtual patient models in minutes? We might reach this stage in the near future.
We are living at the dawn of the nanomedicine age. I believe that nanoparticles and nanodevices will soon operate as precise drug delivery systems, cancer treatment tools or tiny surgeons.
For example, researchers from the Max Planck Institute have been experimenting with exceptionally micro-sized – smaller than a millimeter – robots that literally swim through your bodily fluids; and could be used to deliver drugs or other medical relief in a highly targeted way. These scallop-like microbots are designed to swim through non-Newtonian fluids, like your bloodstream, around your lymphatic system, or across the slippery goo on the surface of your eyeballs.
One of the most exciting and fastest growing fields of healthcare is robotics; developments range from robot companions through surgical robots until pharmabotics, disinfectant robots or exoskeletons. With the help of these devices paralyzed people can walk, rehabilitation of stroke or spinal cord injury patients. They can enhance strength so that it allows a nurse to lift an elderly patient.
Certain robot companions can serve as a social partner in order to alleviate loneliness or treat mental health issues. The Jibo, Pepper, Paro and Buddy robots are all existing examples. Some of them even have touch sensors, cameras and microphones. Thus their owners can get into discussions with them, ask them to find a great concert for that night or just remind them about their medications.
The list of successfully 3D-printed objects demonstrates the potential this technology holds for the near future of medicine. You can find out that there are already at least 12 (!!!) ways in which 3D-printing can be utilized in healthcare ranging from printing tissues with blood vessels until bones and synthetic skin.
You can find 3D-printing in every corner of the world already. “Not Impossible Labs” based in Venice, California took 3D printers to Sudan where the chaos of war has left many people with amputated limbs. The organization’s founder, Mick Ebeling, trained locals how to operate the machinery, create patient specific limbs, and fit these new, very inexpensive prosthetics.
Food for thought
We are truly living in revolutionary times for healthcare. So, be bold, curious and collect information (for example here) about the latest developments so you will have a clearer picture about where we are heading in 2017.