How technologies like artificial intelligence, machine learning, 3D printing, and wearables are shaping the future of healthcare
- The power of preventative healthcare
- Would you trust a robot to operate on you?
- How nanotechnology improves patient outcomes
- Bioprinting promises to put an end to organ transplant waiting lists
- The role of AI in healthcare
- How far are you willing to go to enhance your body?
- What will the hospital of the future look like?
- Ethical implications of new healthcare technology
- The changing role of healthcare staff
It’s probably something most of us take for granted ─ the fact that we live much longer and healthier lives than our ancestors. Thanks to advances in modern medicine, the global average life expectancy has increased significantly over the last century, reaching 72.6 in 2019. What used to be almost unimaginable in the past ─ a person living to a hundred years of age ─ is now an increasingly frequent reality. We have managed to eradicate a number of dangerous diseases and found more effective treatments for many others.
But it doesn’t stop there. What will the future of healthcare look like when certain tasks are taken over by digital healthcare providers and our hospitals make way for intelligent e-health applications? Will predictive care make healthcare more efficient and affordable? What can we expect from biotechnology and nanotechnology? And will there come a time when healthcare is so advanced that we will live to be 130 or perhaps even become immortal?
Technological developments in healthcare are taking place at breakneck speed. Telemedicine, wearables, brain implants that eliminate the effects of epilepsy and Alzheimer’s, and bioprinters that print organs are just some of the cutting-edge innovations that have appeared in the last couple of years. In the future, we’ll also be able to keep our health in check just by swallowing an electronic pill, while our personalised medication will be 3D-printed at home. Surgeries will be performed by robots, and we’ll even be able to ‘cut’ genetic diseases from our DNA. And best of all – that future is closer than you think!
The power of preventative healthcare
Imagine you’re walking through the city. Suddenly, you get an alert from your high-tech wearable, telling you that your blood pressure is skyrocketting. Your physician is also immediately notified. Luckily, it’s nothing serious and your pressure soon returns to normal. Welcome to the future of preventative healthcare. Typically, a person goes to a doctor only once they start feeling ill. The doctor then runs some tests to determine what’s wrong and prescribes a treatment. The biggest problem with reactive care is that by the time you figure out what ails you, it may already be too late.
However, if we can detect early signs of a disease and step in before it becomes serious, we’ll be able to save many more lives. And that’s where wearable devices come in. Besides blood pressure monitors, we’ll see wearables that monitor your heart rate, respiration, and temperature, bracelets that combat sleep apnoea, and gadgets that identify skin cancer. Preventative healthcare will help us keep an eye on warning signs and enable us to take charge, prevent serious health problems, and significantly reduce healthcare costs.
A team of researchers at North Carolina State University have developed a wearable sweat-sensing device that can track the wearer’s body chemistry in real-time and offer a complete picture of their wellbeing. The size of an ordinary wristwatch, the device works by measuring metabolite levels in the wearer’s sweat to detect potential health problems before they become serious. A replaceable strip on the back of the device rests against the wearer’s skin and gathers sweat data using the embedded chemical sensors. The data is then fed to the hardware within the device, where it’s processed and results transmitted to a paired smartphone. Despite its small size, the device offers a surprising amount of functionality, measuring glucose, lactate, pH, and temperature. The sensor strips can, however, be customised to measure different metabolites, enabling the device to do even more in the future.
Would you trust a robot to operate on you?
Digital technology has advanced so much that it makes sense to consider it for improved patient care, cost savings, and increased efficiency. Digital healthcare tech can improve patient monitoring and help reduce physicians’ workload, allowing them to spend more time with patients. Digital care comes in all shapes and sizes. Robotic technology in particular has taken on an increasingly prominent role in medicine in recent years. While they used to be capable of performing only the simple, repetitive tasks, robots are now becoming increasingly sophisticated and are finding a growing number of useful real-world applications. Think surgical robots that assist human surgeons, pharmacy robots that collect and dispense medication, IV-robots that prepare and deliver IV mixtures, exoskeletons – wearable robotic structures – that help with rehabilitation, and telemedicine robots that enable physicians to connect with their patients remotely.
By now, everyone has probably heard about the Da Vinci robot – the most successful surgery robot on the market. To date, it has been used to perform more than 6 million surgeries. However, sophisticated as it is, there is still one thing it can’t do: supermicrosurgery. This type of procedure, which involves operating on vessels with a diameter between 0.3 and 0.8 millimetres, is quite challenging for human surgeons as well due to inherent limitations in the precision and dexterity of the human hands. But there is now a new player in town and this one could be a game-changer. Microsurgeons at the Maastricht University Medical Center in the Netherlands recently used a robotic system called MUSA to perform the world’s first robot-assisted supermicrosurgery.
Developed by the Dutch company MicroSure, MUSA is designed to stabilise the surgeon’s hand movements by cancelling out tremors and scaling down their motions. For instance, moving the joystick by one centimetre results in a sub-millimetre movement of the robot arm. The robot is controlled by forceps-like joysticks and foot pedals and is equipped with arms that can hold various supermicrosurgical instruments. The surgeons used MUSA to operate on patients with a breast cancer-related condition called lymphedema. In addition to significantly reducing the time required to complete the procedure, this type of robot-assisted surgery has also allowed patients to heal more quickly compared to those who had undergone manual surgery.
How nanotechnology improves patient outcomes
Intelligent digital tech fuses the physical, biological, and digital worlds. It changes what it means to be human – and also what it means to heal humans. And when it comes to healing and technology, there have been some mind blowing developments. Think nanorobots – miniature surgeons, if you will – that can be used to repair damaged cells, perform targeted drug delivery, or monitor diabetes in the body. Researchers at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel recently unveiled a proof-of-concept design for a nanorobot that can autonomously navigate within the body, locate cancer cells, and then release targeted medication.
The nanorobot is equipped with two bio-compatible electrodes made from platinum that form a circuit with a capacitor made from two layers of metal separated by an insulating material. When the electrodes interact with glucose in the blood, electricity starts flowing around the circuit and is subsequently stored in the capacitor. The design also features a bio-detector made of a carbon nanotube (CNT) that has sugar molecules attached. When the sugar molecules bind to a cancer cell, it changes resistance within the circuit and alters the electron flow. This causes the operating voltage to drop – a reaction that can be used to release the medication by operating a nanoelectromechanical (NEM) switch that breaks the drug compartment.
Bioprinting promises to put an end to organ transplant waiting lists
And what about bioprinters that can print personalised medication and even entire organs for transplantation? Bioprinting is typically performed by depositing successive layers of a material on top of one another. The problem with this method is that it’s rather slow, so even the simplest of items can take hours to produce. This method has also been limited in terms of the variety of shapes that can be produced. That may be about to change, though.
A team of researchers from EPFL’s School of Engineering recently joined forces with their colleagues at Utrecht University to develop a groundbreaking new technique called volumetric bioprinting that allows them to create complex living tissues in a matter of seconds. “Unlike conventional bioprinting – a slow, layer-by-layer process – our technique is fast and offers greater design freedom without jeopardising the cells’ viability,” explains Damien Loterie, a researcher at EPFL’s Laboratory of Applied Photonics Devices.
To create tissue, the researchers first project a laser into a spinning tube filled with a biocompatible hydrogel that contains stem cells. They then proceed to focus the energy from the light at specific locations, which solidifies the gel and causes the desired 3D shape to appear. Finally, the researchers vascularise the tissue by introducing endothelial cells, while the stem cells differentiate into the type of cells they need. The researchers were able to create tissues that measure several centimetres, including a valve similar to a heart valve, a meniscus, and a complex-shaped part of the femur.
“This is just the beginning,” says Christophe Moser, head of EPFL’s Laboratory of Applied Photonics Devices. “We believe that our method is inherently scalable towards mass fabrication and could be used to produce a wide range of cellular tissue models, not to mention medical devices and personalised implants.”
The role of AI in healthcare
Artificial intelligence (AI) plays an important role in providing medical professionals with real-time clinical and medical knowledge to reach diagnoses and formulate treatment plans. AI, combined with wearables and other medical devices, is already used in the early detection of diseases like cancer and heart disease. A team of researchers from the University of Surrey has developed an innovative AI system that can detect heart failure from a single heartbeat. The system uses a convolutional neural network (CNN) to analyse electrocardiogram (ECG) data and determine within seconds whether a person has congestive heart failure.
“We trained and tested the CNN model on large publicly available ECG datasets featuring subjects with CHF as well as healthy, non-arrhythmic hearts,” explains Sebastian Massaro, Associate Professor of Organisational Neuroscience at the University of Surrey. “Our model delivered 100 percent accuracy: by checking just one heartbeat we are able to detect whether or not a person has heart failure. Our model is also one of the first known to be able to identify the ECG’ s morphological features specifically associated to the severity of the condition.”
It’s only a matter of time before doctors will also be able to diagnose chronic conditions faster, using AI, 3D-imaging technology, and pattern recognition tech. And soon, physicians will even be able to prescribe treatment before a disease has manifested itself. Researchers from Google’s AI lab DeepMind have developed a new deep learning system that can spot breast cancer by analysing mammogram scans. The system was first trained on mammograms from nearly 91,000 women from the US and the UK. It was then tested on another 28,000 scans, where it recorded fewer false positives and false negatives than human radiologists.
“These results highlight the significant role that AI could play in the future of cancer care,” says Cancer Research UK chief executive Michelle Mitchell. “Embracing technology like this may help improve the way we diagnose cancer in the years to come.” In addition to helping save lives by reducing the number of false negatives, the system could also help alleviate the growing shortage of radiologists in the UK.
How far are you willing to go to enhance your body?
The future of humans is linked to advanced medical tech that will enable us to repair, replace or enhance almost every part of the body, like our kidneys, heart, lungs, muscles, skin, limbs, and eyes. A team of researchers from Stanford University, led by the visual prosthetics expert Daniel Palanker, is working on a new generation of bionic glasses that could restore vision to blind people. The device is a retinal implant with 400 photodiodes that replace some of the retina’s spatial map. It works by showing a video stream of the outside world on the inside of the glasses in near-infrared light and then converting it into electrical signals that stimulate the retina’s bipolar cells.
According to Palanker, the device enables a blind person to recognise objects on a table and read printed or on-screen letters. The device does, however, still require the optic nerve to be intact, so it will only work on people who have lost their eyesight due to damage to their photoreceptors as a result of conditions like macular degeneration and retinal detachment. In the future, we will also be able to connect our brains to machines and augment our mental and physical abilities. Human bodies will probably contain at least one – if not more – technologically engineered parts. We will likely have infallible memory, new senses – like echolocation – and body extensions in objects in places located far away from our actual bodies.
What will the hospital of the future look like?
As healthcare costs continue to skyrocket, hospitals and care homes are looking for ways to leverage technology to minimise in-patient services and improve patient care and efficiency. Think smart, centralised virtual centres or micro-hospitals offering digital patient experiences and on-demand interaction. But also robots and automated systems that enable caregivers more time with their patients. Cyber-proofing hospitals and care homes of the future will be critical, as security breaches – due to the proliferation of digital technologies – can be a major threat.
Finland is one of the leading countries in terms of digital healthcare development. In 2014, the country launched the Health Village national virtual hospital project. The system is available to all Finns and is supported by almost 2000 healthcare professionals from all over the country. Each patient gets their own ‘My Path’ customer account, which gives them access to 32 disease-based information hubs. Patients can access this information anonymously and learn how to present their symptoms to health services so that they can get the best results. Any advice shared with the patient is automatically stored on their individual electronic patient record. The system also highlights those patients who may need additional professional help.
Ethical implications of new healthcare technology
Ethics have always been an important part of the medical profession but the growing reliance on emerging technologies has brought some new ethical considerations to the surface. In many ways, people today are no longer separate from technology. It is, therefore, important to keep an eye on the moral side of technological developments as well and take important ethical considerations into account. We need to determine our boundaries and voice our opinions about how people and machines should work together.
While the adoption of technologies like artificial intelligence and wearables have resulted in more effective healthcare systems and better informed patients who take greater control of their own health, there are concerns that it could further increase wealth and power inequalities and undermine the doctor-patient relationship. As technology takes a more active role in diagnosing diseases and prescribing treatments, it also raises some important questions: Will we be able to trust machines to make life-and-death decisions? Who will be responsible if something goes wrong? How do we make sure we avoid bias and protect patient privacy?
The changing role of healthcare staff
As hospitals implement advanced technologies and innovations, the roles and functions of healthcare staff will also be significantly impacted. Healthcare staff will need to develop digital skills to navigate an increasingly data-rich healthcare environment. Staff will also need to focus on continuous learning through online courses and VR/AR simulations. This changing and increasingly augmented healthcare workforce will need to learn how to manage AI processes and work alongside robots. New specialist fields will emerge, such as digital medicine, genomics, artificial intelligence, and surgical robotics. Accenture estimates that 50 per cent of healthcare services will be provided virtually by 2030, while 25 per cent of existing tasks in healthcare workplace will be automated.
Does that mean the technology will eventually entirely replace humans in healthcare? Although this may sound like a possible scenario, it’s actually highly unlikely. “The introduction of technology has only enhanced the patient experience, enabling our clinicians and service providers to spend less time doing paperwork and have more time with patients,” says Boyd Clifford, a talent attraction, engagement and management specialist at Metro South Health. “You will always need that person-to-person interaction and care with healthcare; technology only enhances this. In this sense, soft skills such as communication and the ability to work as part of a high-performing team are critical capabilities in the healthcare sector.”
Technological innovations have transformed healthcare over the last couple of decades. From artificial intelligence and machine learning to 3D-printed organs and wearables, groundbreaking medical solutions now provide more efficient diagnosis, monitoring, and treatment of various medical conditions, helping doctors save countless lives and offering hope where there was none before. While a disease-free future is still far off, the relentless work of researchers across the world is bound to pay off eventually, allowing us to lead much longer and healthier lives. Who knows, we may even become immortal one day!