The Impact Technology Has Had on Healthcare
A Not-so-distant Future
The double doors swung open as the paramedics rushed the burn victim to the hospital’s Accident and Emergency department. A nurse checks the patient’s pulse and vitals, while another takes a blood sample and deposits it to a nearby machine that slowly beings to whirr into action. A scanning device determines the wound size and depth, and guides an attached 3D printer to build layer-by-layer, the correct type of skin tissue to cover the wound using bio-ink formulized with an organic signature from the blood sample to enable optimal grafting.
Sounds like a scene from a science fiction movie, right? Perhaps, but this could be a reality in the not-so-distant future as institutions such as the Wake Forest School of Medicine embark on their second phase of test-printing skin cells directly on burn wounds sustained by soldiers (Scott, 2017); while in 2014, a team of researchers in Canada unveiled a prototype bio-printer that used cells from burn patients to replicate skin (McCullough, 2014).
We are currently in what the World Economic Forum calls the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which is an era characterized by new technologies that are connecting the physical, digital, and biological realms. This revolution is having an impact on all disciplines, economies, and industries—including healthcare (Schwab, 2017). The technological innovations at the forefront of this era — the internet of things, artificial intelligence, and robotics — are integrating with consumer and scientific trends to open new horizons for the industry.
This essay examines each of these forces in turn, and how they are shaping as well as influencing healthcare in recent years. The conclusion paints a picture of what they could mean for the future of healthcare.
Technological Forces of Change
With more than 3.9 billion users worldwide (Miniwatts Marketing Group, 2017), the internet is one of the most prominent features of my generation. The web is a powerful tool that educates and empowers consumers by providing information on health and healthcare services, and also supports self-help and patient choice.
In fact, surveys show that a whopping 60 – 80% of internet users go online to obtain health-related information (Powell, Darvell, & Gray, 2003). Websites like “Patients Like Me”, allow users to share their diagnosis and treatment details, including information about specific symptoms and medications, while also functioning as a support group (PatientsLikeMe, 2017).
Not only are patients becoming increasingly connected, but doctors and medical students are also using a more diverse range of resources as educational tools. Knowledge sharing apps like Figure 1, dubbed “Instagram for doctors”, connect doctors to one another, enable crowdsourcing of diagnoses for cases, and also provide peer updates on rare diseases, new medical procedures, or interesting new medicine applications.
Finally, from managing weight or stress levels, to helping people reach their desired fitness levels, “smart” wearable technology from Fitbit, Apple, or Xiaomi compete to encourage consumers to get to know more about their health, and to help empower users to take control over their own lives. Ubiquitous connectivity, big data, analytics, and the cloud have thus combined to become the “Internet of Things” as humans, devices, and machines communicate continuously and in ever-greater numbers.
This brings us to the second technological force: artificial intelligence. As healthcare providers and patients become increasingly connected to one another, the amount of information being collected is continuously growing.
Artificial intelligence programs and algorithms have been developed and applied to practices ranging from drug development to patient monitoring and care. In 2015, Atomwise launched a virtual search for safe, existing medicines that could be redesigned to treat the Ebola virus (Atomwise Inc., 2015). As a result, they found two potential drugs in less than a day, showing the potential of how efficient drug creation could become.
Tech giants such as Google and IBM have also launched various data-harvesting and machine learning projects (Hem, 2016). IBM’s Watson for Oncology application, developed in partnership with the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Centre, allows physicians to quickly identify key information in a patient’s medical records, surface relevant articles, and explore treatment options (Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, 2017).
In an experiment with the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, Watson processed medical records of 1,000 cancer patients and recommended the same treatment plans as human oncologists in 99% of the cases. Additionally, having been supplied with all the latest cancer research information, Watson provided additional options that tend to be missed by human physicians in 30% of cases (Lohr, 2016).
Moving one step further, robotics is one of the most exciting and fastest growing fields in healthcare, with developments ranging from exoskeletons to nano-devices. Companies like SuitX and ReWalk Robotics are building suits that not only enable paralyzed people to walk, but also aid in the rehabilitation of stroke or spinal cord injury patients (Brewster, 2016). Exoskeleton makers are further driving costs down to a few thousand dollars to start competing with motorized wheelchairs.
Nanoparticles and nano-devices are also promising more precise drug delivery systems, cancer treatment, and surgical tools. For example, Max Planck Institute researchers have been experimenting with robots smaller than a millimeter in size, which are able to swim through blood and plasma, and could be used to deliver drugs or other chemicals in a highly targeted way (Max Planck Gesellschaft, 2014).
Finally, in reference to the introductory paragraph, 3D-printing is making its way to virtually every corner of the world. In the most unlikely of places, Not Impossible Labs is printing low-cost prosthetic arms for people who have lost their limbs in the war-torn country of Sudan. The prosthetic arms are not only inexpensive (costing around USD 100 to produce), but can also be printed in a short period of time (about six hours). Local residents have also received training on how to operate the machinery, create customized limbs, and fit the new prosthetics (Bort, 2014).
A Vision of the Future
What then does the future of healthcare look like? I would like to suggest three broad themes: a more consumer-driven market, a holistic approach to health and well-being, and more personalized treatments.
In the healthcare market, new channels such as the internet and social media are transforming how consumers select and purchase their healthcare products and services. Consumers are no longer passively receiving medical attention from healthcare providers. Rather, like those who purchase goods and services for personal use, people are increasingly doing their own research, comparing the costs and benefits of different treatments or health insurance plans, and seeking second opinions or alternative treatments.
Secondly, healthcare offerings will continue to evolve due to the technological forces described above. With increasing computing power, thousands of potential drug variations may one day be tested on millions of virtual patients in minutes.
There will undoubtedly be continued medical breakthroughs, and who knows whether the medical “tricorder” as portrayed in Star Trek could one day become a reality? In addition to healthcare treatment, research and technological applications will become more holistic, encompassing an increased focus on nutrition, as well as preserving the health of aging populations.
Last but not least, treatments will become increasingly customized to the needs of individual consumers. Breakthroughs in genomics, big data analytics, and “smart” systems will soon render the one-size-fits-all approach obsolete. Sensors, probes, biometrics, and almost everything we now possess may one day be combined with the use of smart phones to detect abnormalities, alert patients, and relay details to physicians.
Perhaps one day, when we fall ill, we won’t need to go—feverish and in pain — to our doctors’ offices, only to wait in line with other patients with diseases that we may catch. Tele-doctors would come to us instead, using the internet, two-way video, e-mail, and smartphone technology (Beck, 2016). Our body sensors could even provide tele-doctors with more precise medical and diagnostic data than the ones they obtain today.
The technological forces and emerging themes I have mentioned are just the tip of the iceberg, as there are many more breakthroughs occurring daily. In future, regulators, decision makers, healthcare professionals, and patients will most likely need to handle the developments in this rapidly changing environment very carefully. Nevertheless, these glimpses into the future project a fascinating new world that could become a reality in our lifetime. It is therefore within our grasp to invent a better future for humanity.
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Bort, J. (7 January, 2014). How A $100 3D-Printed Arm Is Saving The Children Of Sudan. Retrieved from Business Insider: http://www.businessinsider.com/how-a-100-3d-printed-arm-is-saving-the-children-of-sudan-2014-1/?IR=T
Brewster, S. (1 February, 2016). This $40,000 Robotic Exoskeleton Lets the Paralyzed Walk. Retrieved from MIT Technology Review: https://www.technologyreview.com/s/546276/this-40000-robotic-exoskeleton-lets-the-paralyzed-walk/
Figure 1. (2017). About Us: Figure 1. Retrieved from Figure 1: https://figure1.com/sections/about/
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Max Planck Gesellschaft. (7 November, 2014). Tiny vehicles for medical applications. Retrieved from Max Planck Gesellschaft: https://www.mpg.de/8741521/micro-robots-medical-application
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Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. (2017). Innovative Collaborations: Watson Oncology. Retrieved from Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center: https://www.mskcc.org/about/innovative-collaborations/watson-oncology
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PatientsLikeMe. (2017). About Us: PatientsLikeMe: https://www.patientslikeme.com/about
Powell, J. A., Darvell, M., & Gray, J. M. (Feb, 2003). The doctor, the patient and the world-wide web: how the internet is changing healthcare. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 96(2), 74-76.
Schwab, K. (2017). The Fourth Industrial Revolution. New York: Crown Business.
Scott, C. (19 January, 2017). Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine Progresses with 3D Printed Skin Technology. Retrieved from 3DPrint: https://3dprint.com/162193/wfirm-3d-printed-skin-burn-care/