Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy, the doctor aboard the fictional Starship Enterprise on “Star Trek”, was ahead of his time. Practicing space-age medicine with a cool handheld scanner, he could get instant information about vital signs and patient health, while diagnosing and prescribing cures for unusual ailments.
Today, as technology continues to revolutionize the practice of healthcare, we have entered an exciting new frontier of state-of-the-art gadgets and high-tech communication systems. Some of these changes are made possible by our growing ability to utilize big data to improve outcomes through the field of health informatics; others by awe-inspiring advancements in medical science, telecommunications, and even robotics. Here are a few of the ways that technology is shaping the future of healthcare.
1. 3-D bioprinting
This high-tech medical advancement is still in its infancy but has the potential to create drugs, prostheses, and even human tissue and organs. Recently, scientists printed human ears and successfully attached them to the skin of mice, a huge step forward in the evolution of 3D printing. Potentially even more exciting is a development reported in Australia, where doctors successfully implanted a 3-D printed vertebrae into a human patient who had been suffering from chordoma cancer. At Vanderbilt University, The Kidney Project is currently developing a bioartificial kidney “as a permanent solution to end-stage renal disease.” This advancement could ensure that every eligible patient would have the option of receiving a transplant, not just those who make it to the top of the list.
2. Artificial intelligence and robotics
Advancements in both artificial intelligence and robotics have led to real uses for robots in hospital settings—as surgical assistants, as delivery and transportation aids, and much more. Described as looking like something out of a science fiction movie, a bright-white cleaning robot at Thompson Hospital in Canandaigua, N.Y., uses ultraviolet light to destroy pathogens associated with hospital-acquired infections.
In addition, robots are increasingly being used in actual surgical procedures. According to the Mayo Clinic, “The most widely used clinical robotic surgical system includes a camera arm and mechanical arms with surgical instruments attached to them. The surgeon controls the arms while seated at a computer console” that displays a magnified view of the surgical site. Though robot-assisted surgery traces its roots to the 1980s, the technology continues to advance, now giving trained surgeons the ability to perform remote “telesurgery.” Other potential benefits include safety (reduced blood loss), smaller incisions, and smaller scars, along with faster recovery time.
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Wearables offer incredible potential to collect patient data, increase prevention, and improve health outcomes for users. Electronic fitness trackers and smart watches are among the best-known wearables, but there are many more on the market and currently in development that monitor everything from sleep and rest patterns to heart rate and calories. There are wearable devices that help you manage stress and high blood pressure, and one that provides data by tracking your heart as it beats around 100,000 times per day, to name just a few. Spurred by the success of smartwatch-style devices like the popular Fitbit, the global market for medical wearables is forecast to grow from an estimated $123 billion in 2015 to $612 billion in the next eight years (mobihealthnews.com).
Telemedicine involves leveraging methods of virtual communication between patient and physician. With telemedicine, doctors are able to see and treat patients through video conferencing, eliminating the need for patients to drive to a physician’s office or clinic. Telemedicine is a boon for the thousands of people who don’t have access to medical care because they live in a remote location, lack transportation options, or are not ambulatory. In recent years, some medical centers have even expanded their telemedicine capabilities to the surgical suite—remotely performing intricate robotic surgeries on patients many miles away—or even around the world.
5. The cloud
The healthcare industry was slow to adopt the cloud, but that is quickly changing. IBM Watson is one example of a cloud-based technology that is “bringing together clinical, research, and social data from a diverse range of health sources” to advance care and speed up communication. While security and privacy of patient data have always been a concern for health centers, the cloud has introduced new challenges and concerns surrounding the possibility of cyber attacks or digital information breaches. Yet, many experts agree that the cloud is a more secure option than on-premises data storage solutions. Technology is being leveraged to dispel many of these concerns, with new tools being developed daily to protect patient information. What’s more, the government will likely be enacting stricter regulations and policies around digital health data to add an extra layer of protection for patients.
6. Electronic health records
In 2009, Congress passed the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act, mandating the transition from old-fashioned paper records to electronic health records (EHRs). Compared to some of the dramatic breakthroughs cited above, the federal HITECH Act may seem somewhat low-tech, but the impact has been far-reaching and profound. The legislation paved the way for the growth in healthcare informatics and the age of big data in healthcare, as well as interoperability—the use of technology to easily and securely share medical data (patient records, for example) between systems, software applications, and people. EHRs offer improved continuity of care and better outcomes by ensuring that doctors are diagnosing and treating patients based on a holistic picture of their past and current health. EHRs are also expected to improve coordination of care between providers, reduce health care disparities, and streamline processes such as e-prescribing.
7. Health informatics
In addition, the widespread adoption of EHRs has given rise to volumes of health data never before imagined—creating opportunities to harness and interpret that data to improve care among both individual patients and patient populations. Though the field is still relatively new, the role of informatics in healthcare is expected to continue to expand. A workforce study undertaken by the American Health Information Management Association reveals more and more employers are looking for job candidates who possess informatics skills and training. In response, universities are helping to fill the skills gap with specific educational offerings such as a master’s degree in health informatics.
8. Is a medical tricorder on the horizon?
OK, it doesn’t look exactly like the one wielded by Dr. McCoy on “Star Trek”, but today the medical tricorder is much closer to being a reality—thanks in part to the $10 million Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE challenge. Dr. Basil Harris, an emergency room physician, and his brother George Harris, a network engineer, led a group that beat 300 teams from 38 countries to win a $2.6 million grand prize. Their tricorder, which utilizes sensors that fit over a patient’s fingers, can diagnose a variety of common ailments, including anemia, atrial fibrillation, diabetes, sleep apnea, and urinary tract infections. The Roddenberry Foundation, a charitable organization set up by the son of “Star Trek” creator Gene Roddenberry, has pledged an additional $1.6 million to help develop the finalists’ designs in the belief that such futuristic devices could one day save millions of lives.
Jonathan Mack, PhD, MSN
Jonathan Mack, Ph.D, MSN, is a Clinical Associate Professor and Program Coordinator for the online Master of Science in Health Care Informatics program at the University of San Diego.