Innovations in Medicine have always walked hand in hand with advances in technology. Two hundred years ago, the first wooden stethoscope was already a breakthrough innovation even though stethoscopes are now electronic. The digital ones offer the ability to detect the slightest whisper, even in a noisy ER room. The best of them, such as the 3M Littmann Core and the Eko DUO, also interface with a tablet or smartphone for automated diagnostics in real-time.
In medical imaging, X-rays in medical imaging are now complemented by fMRI and CT-Scan. Artificial Intelligence algorithm helps radiologists in establishing diagnostics that can leverage on the power of teleradiology.
Digital Health technology is a fascinating field where engineers and physicians can brainstorm together. Together, they design new innovative technologies that will change patient care and the future of healthcare.
Twenty years ago, Garson et Lewin from the Baylor College of Medicine published an article about the future of healthcare in the ten years to come. Their predictions about a health system driven by technology and data were strikingly accurate. They are undoubtedly worth reading.
In the years to come, the future of healthcare will be ever more technology-driven. We selected 9 technologies that are already a reality. Their widespread adoption will undoubtely modify how patients and doctors interact and how care is delivered.
1. 5G in Telehealth
The development of the 5G network has the potential to improve the transmission of the data. Compared to the 4G network, 5G technology offers lower latency, faster transmission, and a dramatic increase in simultaneous connections.
For paramedics, the patients’ vitals can be sent in real-time to the specialists’ analysis hospitals. In many ways, 5G is a truly transformative technology for healthcare.
The COVID-19 outbreak has seen a surge in the use of Telehealth services. Healthcare providers can now examine the patients remotely to minimize the risks of exposure to the virus. Even though vaccination is currently underway worldwide, we hypothesize that now that both the providers and the patients have experienced telemedicine’s many benefits, it will be hard to go back to the old face-to-face ways.
Telehealth will never replace the critical physical interactions needed to establish trust between a patient and a doctor. But, 5G has the potential to improve medical care by offering radically relevant and instantly available telepresence.
Now that state regulations have been smoothened and that both health insurance and medicare cover such remote consultations, expanding the 5G network is the only limiting factor to allow physicians to make the most of this new means to interact with their patients.
With the increase in patients suffering from chronic diseases, remote monitoring can help patients improve their conditions. Transferring data to healthcare providers in real-time has the potential to help manage many diseases. Using 5G technology improves the transmission of the data but, ultimately, patient outcomes as well.
2. Artificial Intelligence in Diagnostics
With the development of teleradiology and the increase in the number of imaging procedures to help prevent and diagnose pathologies, artificial intelligence is poised for a bright future.
Using Artificial intelligence in imaging diagnostics has proven impressively accurate and sensitive in the identification of imaging abnormalities. In 2019, an algorithm developed by the Chine company JF Healthcare gained popularity after beating the Stanford Machine Learning group algorithm in a friendly competition to evaluate AI algorithms’ accuracy in analyzing X-rays.
Imaging diagnostics is a multi-modalities field. One of the limitations of the current Artificial Intelligence algorithms lies in the fact that few of them have been trained for multi-imaging purposes. A CT-Scan, MRI, and X-rays can all be used to diagnose the same condition and provide different information.
Combining different imaging data sources is no easy task for Artificial Intelligence algorithms. It is somehow the needed next technological breakthrough to improve data analysis and diagnostics.
3. Smartwatches and Wearables in health tracking
Nowadays, medicine already relies heavily on data collection. Most of us wear a fitness band, or smartwatch witch tracks numerous health data, from electrocardiograms to sleep patterns, blood pressure, and even fertility periods. Some smartwatches can even help you manage your stress or check your blood glucose levels.
Smartwatches can help you achieve complete fitness and potentially improve your health. With them, the Healthcare industry is getting closer to patients. Twenty years from now, we suspect that medical tattoos may well be as common as wearing a smartwatch. They may even become fashion accessories. Future will tell.
Improving the health of patients suffering from chronic diseases is becoming a holistic challenge. Healthcare professionals have to deal with patients who will google any symptoms they have and monitor their blood pressure several times a day. Technology and data collection are both a curse and a blessing. Too much data can blur the overall picture and ultimately become counterproductive. A right equilibrium still needs to be found.
4. Robots for elderly care
Robots are the future of healthcare. There is no doubt about that, but this technology goes well beyond surgical robots and can also be used as a therapy. It is assumed that the care-bot market will reach $3.7 billion by 2035. Japan is at the forefront of this change in elderly care being fueled by its aging population and a lack of healthcare workers. Paro Therapeutic Robot is a smart baby seal that has been clinically proven to reduce patients’ symptoms for those who have dementia.
Pepper was developed by a French company then acquired by the Japanese giant Soft-Bank. The friendly-looking robot is currently used in retirement houses in Japan and Europe. The robot helps the elderly cope with loneliness and even exercise.
Loneliness is a non-medical consequence of aging but has severe impacts on the mental and global health state of the elderly. Using robot dogs is a way of keeping an aging population mentally alert.
Finally, to deal with the decrease of carers in the healthcare system, Japan developed a medical care assistant called Robear to help the elderly get out of bed. Robear was more an academic project designed by a government-funded technology institute but shows the way Japan is willing to go when using robotic nurses.
5. Sequencing and personalized medicine
The future of medicine will be personalized. Everybody agrees on this point. Sequencing your genome will soon become the first step before any treatment. Soon the “one-size fits all” drug will be a paradigm of the past. By analyzing the patients’ genome, physicians will know which drug to prescribe for optimal results, depending on the genetic makeup. Storing the huge amount of data generated can also be securely done using cloud services such as Amazon HealthLake.
Every tumor is different. Drugs are becoming increasingly specific and target specific mutations. Sequencing them will reveal the genetic mutations. By using drugs designed to focus on these mutations, not only will the chances of success be increased, but payers will only invest in the most efficient drugs. Genetic analyses are a way to optimize both the costs and therapeutic benefits.
One of the drawbacks of sequencing relates to privacy though. Patients’ sensitive medical data could be used by health insurance to deny coverage or increase premiums potentially. The healthcare system should ideally evolve at the same pace as future healthcare technologies.
6. VR/AR in remote procedures and training
Virtual Reality is not for gaming anymore. The technology is used more and more often to train surgeons to learn new procedures safely or even doctors on how to best deal with the patients by practicing virtual consultation. Coupled with haptic gloves, surgeons can operate remotely using tele-existence solutions while feeling realistic feedback in their hands.
Augmented Reality can also be used to assist physicians or nurses when sampling blood. The company Acuvein offers a way of visualizing the veins through the arm. No more guessing the veinous network is clearly displayed to help in perfect and painless blood sampling.
7. 3D Printing in healthcare
3D printing is not only the future of transplantation. It is also used for prosthetics and dentistry. Tractus 3D is specialized in providing accurate prosthetics that have changed the life and comfort of many amputees.
Bioprinting refers to printing several layers of cells to replicate an organ. By using adult stem cells, organs can be printed, and some function restored. We are still quite far from being able to 3D a functional heart, but more simple organs such as kidneys may soon reduce the list of 90,000 people waiting for a kidney transplant as of September 2020. This is the hope of the ongoing collaboration between CollPlant Biotechnologies and United Therapeutics.
8. Blockchain and smart contracts
From a technology initially developed to transfer money securely and privately, blockchain is now seen as a way to secure patient data using Electronic Health Record (EHR). Medical insurance claims can also be managed in more efficient ways when using smart contracts associated with them.
The secure transfer of medical data between healthcare professionals could also greatly benefit from the blockchain’s distributed ledger.
The potential of using blockchain technology in the healthcare industry has enormous potential. But here again, keeping the system and the data secured is a challenge that will need to be resolved for physicians and patients to accept these major changes in the ways information is handled.
9. Medical Chatbot
Artificial Intelligence powers medical Chatbots. Most of them are getting wiser by the minute. Even though they certainly can not replace a doctor, they have the potential to act as diligent first-line triage assistants. To improve the patient experience, they are always available and can provide valuable information before a face-to-face or telemedicine consultation.
During the COVID-19 outbreak, chatbots were even used to analyze the symptoms and advise callers to undergo a test or not. Twelve of these health care chatbots were analyzed in a study published by Munsch et al. The results showed that all chatbots were not created equal but that some of them, such as Symptoma, provided excellent sensitivity, sensibility, and accuracy in detecting a potential SARS-Cov2 infection.
Their role in Healthcare is mostly as a first point of contact or to give advices on a treatment. Babylon Health initially started as a trial collaboration with the British NHS. Now, the company still relies on his chatbot for improving the quality of care.
Healthcare organizations have many reasons to use medical chatbots, not only to improve care delivery but also to make savings. Juniper Research estimated that the “Annual cost savings derived from the adoption of virtual assistants in healthcare will reach $3.6 billion globally by 2022, up from an estimated $2.8 million in 2017.”