You know the saying: the pessimist says the glass is half empty, the optimist says it is half full, and, well, the cynic asks who drank the other half? I’m truly an optimist – especially when it comes to the future of medicine and healthcare.
And although my optimism is rooted in facts and objective judgement about the latest trends in healthcare, it is important to keep both feet on the ground, because the sensationalist nature of media tends to over-hype outstanding medical findings, creative healthcare solutions and ephemeral experiments alike. Well, for the 15 minutes spotlight, actually, while it does not help them become viable and sustainable in any way.
Look at the story of Theranos and its ill-famed founder, Elizabeth Holmes. After a decade of blind expectations, The Wall Street Journal has raised serious concerns about Theranos’ one-drop blood tests. Now we must wait for clear details of their technology. Look at Optogenetics! The technology using light to control cell behavior in living tissues still remains a promise for the far future. Look at the iKnife which can detect cancerous tissue during operations! It almost vanished completely.
If something sounds too good to be true in medicine, extreme caution and clear evidence are required before spreading the word about it since giving false hope is dangerous.
Thus, we need to take a moment, set aside the excitement and optimism, and examine disruptive medical innovations in depth and approach them through evidence-based rationality. Over-hyping any of them might result in crashing the process of development or creating an investment bubble. By presenting the downsides, we might avoid this scenario and hopefully they will turn out to be an amazing success.
So, here you find the top 12 most over-hyped technologies in medicine
1) 3D printed drugs
On an utterly boring Wednesday afternoon, you go to the pharmacy on the corner of the street at the request of your wife. You only tell her name to the pharmacist, and the next moment her personalized pills are printed out. They are the capsules she requested, in customized dosage, as the doctor prescribed and tailored to her molecular background. Sounds amazing, right? Unfortunately, we are not there yet…
The first 3D-printed drug, Spritam, that dissolves quickly and is used in epilepsy, was approved by the US FDA in 2015. I also contemplated about the possibility what if small companies come up with other solutions for creating drugs that can be metabolized faster and reach the market more easily because of this manufacturing method. And I thought whole pharma supply chains will have to be redesigned within years, perhaps even months.
However, I might had been too optimistic. Right now, the production is slow. Pharma companies are reluctant to adapting such a new technology which changes how they have been producing drugs for decades.
Google submitted a patent to the US Patent & Trademark Office in 2014 that described a digital, multi-sensor contact lens that can also detect blinking, with benefits like turning the page of an e-book with a “blink of an eye”. Later, more details about the idea emerged, revealing a much more transformative use for the contact lens – measuring blood glucose from tears.
In 2014, Google said that according to their most optimistic calculations the digital contact lens can be released within five years, and trials might start even earlier. However, since then the company postponed the release many times and they did not communicate clearly about the development of the contact lens. In their official announcement, they even noted that scientists have long looked into how certain body fluids can help track glucose levels easier, but as tears are hard to collect and study, using them was never really an option.
3) Telemedicine kiosks
The idea behind the Healthspot telemedicine kiosks was to provide convenient, quality care at popular locations such as retail spaces or offices. It was a true integration of telehealth and personal care. Patients connected with providers face-to-face via video screen, and received individualized care right in their neighborhood.
While at first it seemed as a revolutionary development, the company went bankrupt. And the reason why? The work model of Healthspot did not provide the real on-demand health service experience it promised, it was too expensive, its target market was too small and the kiosk itself was too big in the era of smartphones being able to play HD quality videos.
Switching from long and extremely expensive clinical trials to tiny microchips which can be used as models of human cells, organs or whole physiological systems provides clear advantages. Drugs or components could be tested on these without limitations which would make clinical trials faster and even more accurate (in each case the conditions and circumstances would be the same). The Organs-on-Chips technology is able to use stem cells to mimic organs of the body with a series of devices. Many experts believe that this technology could revolutionize clinical trials and replace animal testing completely. It could also improve cancer care.
Although the experiments are promising, these are still far from a real and total-body simulation of human physiology. Even if organs could be mimicked, connecting the models to each other is more complicated than we would think.
5) Augmented reality
The fact that Pokémon Go conquered the world during the summer months proves that augmented reality has great potential. And although medical AR is a brand-new area of healthcare, there are already brilliant ideas about its usage. In the future, medical students might study anatomy on virtual dissection tables and not on human cadavers. What we used to learn from huge textbooks will be transformed into virtual 3D solutions and models using augmented reality. During operations, surgeons can see through anatomical structures such as blood vessels in the liver without opening organs therefore they can perform more precise excisions.
And Magic Leap, the company located in Florida has not even showed a prototype about its product yet – which it calls mixed reality (MR), namely the mixture of AR and VR solutions. Thus there is no proof that Magic Leap would work in practice. And usually marketing videos look much better than real life.
6) Medical tricorder
When Dr McCoy from Star Trek 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. The ultimate point-of-care medical device – you can treat the patient wherever he or she is located.
There are already various experiments for trying to reach this level of healthcare – such as Scanadu, which is an early stage mobile medical device to empower patients, or Viatom Checkme, which not only measures your body temperature, but also traces ECG, measures pulse rate and rhythm, oxygen saturation, systolic blood pressure, physical activity and sleep. Many believe that the Qualcomm Tricorder XPrize challenge might hopefully lead to the development of a device that can diagnose any diseases and give individuals more choices in their own health.
In my opinion, even if the XPrize brings similar devices, they will only be able to track a few parameters and conditions. Right now, the tricorder is far away from reality.
The intelligent surgical knife (iKnife) was developed by Zoltan Takats of Imperial College London and works by using an old technology where an electrical current heats tissue to make incisions with minimal blood loss. With the iKnife, the vaporized smoke is analyzed by a mass spectrometer to detect the chemicals in the biological sample. This means it can identify whether the tissue is malignant real-time.
The media loved the story and created a huge hype about it. After a few months, it disappeared as fast as it came. Not even calling it a Jedi-knife could help in making it a successful invention.
The market for healthcare wearables and trackers is booming lately. Sensors and health trackers can measure health parameters, granting insight into exercise habits, sleep quality, stress levels or brain activity during meditation.
I also enthusiastically tested many of them in order to ensure a healthy way of life, and I truly believe that in the future, health trackers such as the Pebble sleep tracker or Withings Blood Pressure monitor will become part of our lives. Such sensitive data-collecting devices will be very useful for doctors, especially GPs since they collect a lot of health information about the patient. The waiting time in front of doctor’s examining rooms could drop significantly and the GPs could devote more energy and time to more focused and relaxed healing.
However, we are unfortunately not there yet. Nowadays, these healthcare devices are still too big to wear them comfortably and invisibly, the algorithms behind them are dumb and we need to analyze data by ourselves and draw conclusions from that – which is far from being effective.
The aim of humanoid nurse robots is to support, assist and extend the service health workers are offering. According to experts, in jobs with repetitive and monotonous functions they might even obtain the capacity to completely replace humans. RoBear, a bear-shaped robot is able to lift a patient out of bed, the TUG robot is able to carry around a multitude of racks, carts or bins up to 453 kilograms, and Pepper, the little humanoid “social robot” is able to greet and navigate patients through the hospital.
Or at least it is the dream. Humanoid nurse robots are far from being everyday reality. Even the Pepper robot, which was introduced in two Belgian hospitals, is just a prototype in only two medical facilities.
10) Virtual reality gloves
There are not only goggles, but also gloves with which companies experiment to enhance the VR experience. The American company, Manus created gloves which give your hands and arms control in virtual reality. In medicine, especially telemedicine such devices would be great assets – physicians could feel and touch patients from a distance, even from continents away while discussing medical issues through telemedical applications.
Although the concept is brilliant, practice lags behind: it is very difficult to use such gloves, and VR headsets are not always compatible with them. Moreover, there are no commercially available gloves on the market yet.
11) The Theranos Story
The media loves such stories. Elizabeth Holmes, the most successful female entrepreneur in medicine, the youngest inventor in healthcare. She appeared in every leading newspaper, journal in the United States and promised to revolutionize blood-testing methods. One drop of blood – and the patient will know more about his illnesses than in his or her whole life before. It was the disruptive dream: Theranos promised to dramatically cut costs, to be flexible and easily portable and above all – reliable.
Everyone believed that it is one of the greatest medical inventions of the century since it would be great to revolutionize traditional blood-testing either in quantity or quality or pricewise. However, after the Wall Street Journal raised its serious concerns about the viability of the project, a comprehensive investigation was launched and in July, regulators decided to revoke its license to operate a lab in California because of unsafe practices and to ban Holmes from the blood-testing business for at least two years. That’s a major backlash to the once $9 billion worth company. There is not even proof or evidence that truly did what they claim they did.
12) 3D printed organs
Organ transplantation waiting lists are long and barbaric, not to mention the even more hell-like black market specialized for organ traffic. Patients literally need to wait for somebody to die to receive life-saving treatments. Organs created by using the stem cells of the patient would eliminate the dark side of the organ donor systems.
There are promising signs into such development as this year, researchers from Organovo and Roche Pharmaceutical Research and Early Development have used Organovo’s 3D printed human liver tissues to model drug-induced liver injury. Although the field still in its infancy, many scientists are hopeful that, in the not-too-distant future, patients will be able to obtain artificially fabricated organs to replace defective livers, kidneys, and even hearts.
But we have to keep in mind, that for the moment, only tissues can be printed out, which function like human tissues (liver, bone, or cartilage). Organs are far away from materializing out of stem cells.
By avoiding unnecessary hype, we could prepare society for these amazing technologies and not put impossible pressure on the shoulders of innovators and companies.
We also have to be realistic when looking at disruptive technologies. Although this might be the most difficult since news about great healthcare solutions can blow our minds every single day. In order to truly live in science fiction, we need to be cautious and conscious.