September 26, 2014

Ray Kurzweil says technology is improving at an exponential rate. Peter Thiel says technological innovations couldn’t live up to the expectations. There are plenty of philosophies and schools of thought, but regarding the future of medicine, only two things are certain.

Technology will not solve the problems that healthcare faces globally today. And the human touch alone is not enough any more, therefore a new balance is needed between using disruptive innovations but still keeping the human interaction between patients and caregivers. Here are 10 technologies and trends that could enable this.

1) Health Sensors – Portable Diagnostics

Smartphones being used as biosensors and wearable devices enabling patients to measure almost any health parameter at home would mean that information and health variables would finally not only be available in the ivory tower of medicine, but at home. This way, patients would have a chance for a better health management. Lifestyle could also be gamified with these devices to make it more healthy. There are smartforks currently available that teach us how to eat properly; we can soon measure the number of calories in our food with Tellspec; can measure oxygen saturation; pulse variability, ECG, EEG and even more.

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2) Artificial Intelligence in Decision Making

Even the most acclaimed professors can only keep a few studies in mind, but there are actually 23 million papers in the database of Pubmed.com. It is humanly impossible now to keep up with these. But help is coming. IBM’s supercomputer named Watson has been tested at several clinics in the decision making process. While the doctor talks with the patient, Watson checks the medical records and the global literature, then makes suggestions. Every time, the doctor makes the final call with all the required information being available.

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3) The End of Human Experiments

Even in the 2010 years, we are still testing new drugs and molecules on patients. Some of them get the actual drug, others get placebo to see the difference. Several research groups are working on the creation of the first virtual physiological model of the human body. This way, thousands of new molecules could be tested on billions of patients models looking for side effects or toxic outcomes with a supercomputer. Hummod is the most famous example.

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4) Augmented Reality

Rafael Grossmann, MD uses Google Glass to stream operations to his medical students to teach them in an entirely new way. Moreover, now when the patient comes in and they discuss symptoms, he can still look into the patient’s eye, instead of immediately looking at the monitor while inputting data. He presented the evolution of mobile health in this 7 seconds long video. The Evena glasses let nurses see the actual veins while taking blood. The opportunities are almost endless.

5) Social Media and Its Effects

It is not a real and unique technology, but the whole social media era played a huge role in the initiation of the so-called Empowered Patient or the Participatory Healthcare movement. Now, patients get access to all the information that were only available for medical professionals before. Moreover, they can get connected to other patients dealing with similar problems. SeeSmartpatients as the example.

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6) DIY Biotechnology

With the new generation of citizen scientists and innovators such as Jack Andraka, who came up with a new pancreas cancer test at the age of 15, the way research is performed is about to dramatically change. Open access peer-reviewed papers and public databases assist them, as well as open laboratories such as DIYbio where they can perform their experiments.

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7) Direct-to-consumer Genomics

With the advances genomic companies have made, now anyone can get access to their own genome sequences. While the cost of this was about 3 billion dollars more than tey years ago, now it is getting close to $1-2,000, and eventually, sequencing will be cheaper than the shipping cost of the sample. Although we cannot make many medical decisions based on the pure data, the analysis of our DNA will soon give us the power of make better decisions about our future. This way, the era of personalized medicine when we only get drugs that are designed to our own genomic background will finally arrive.

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8) Surgical and Android Robots

There are about a thousand daVinci surgical robots around the world. Medical schools such as the on in Washington started to teach skills to future surgeons which are needed to control the robot instead of manually performing the operation. They are getting more complicated and more intuitive at the same time. Soon, they will be so precise, an intermediary robot will be needed not to translate the lousy vibrations of the human hand into the robot’s laser-precise movements. It might make it possible in regions with doctor shortages to perform simpler tasks by physicians who control the robot from continents away. InTouch Health develops acute care telemedical robots to let the physician be where it is needed at least half virtually.

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9) Augmenting Human Features

If we can repair lost limbs or diseased tissue, only one step is needed to actually augment human capabilities and features. State-of-the-art prosthetic devices such as Touch Bionics‘ i-Limb Ultra is getting closer to mimicking the human hand. Ekso Bionics has been teaching over 3,000 patients how to learn to walk again with exoskeletons while being paralyzed from the waist down. In a ship factory in South Korea, some workers now work with exoskeletons on a daily basis. What if we can jump higher, run faster, or be smarter just because we can afford to use technologies in and on our bodies? Such issues will have to be discussed on a public level.

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10) Nanorobots Living in our Bloodstream

In the far future, robots on the nanoscale could live in our bloodstream and prevent any diseases by alerting the patient when a condition is about to develop. They could interact with our organs, measure every health parameter and intervene when needed. From the other side, imagine how many changes it would give to bioterrorism and how our privacy could be hurt. We will have to find the right balance between these before the technology becomes available.

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I see enormous technological changes heading our way. If they hit us unprepared, which we are now, they will wash away the medical system we know and leave it a purely technology–based service without personal interaction. Such a complicated system should not be washed away. Rather, it should be consciously and purposefully redesigned piece by piece. If we are unprepared for the future, then we lose this opportunity. I think we are still in time and it is still possible.

The advances of technology do not have to mean the end of the human touch. Instead, the beginning of a new era when both are crucial.

Dr. Bertalan Mesko

Medical Futurist

Author of The Guide to the Future of Medicine


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