With digital health technologies’ progress, such as artificial intelligence, VR/AR, 3D-printing, robotics and nanotechnologies, the future of healthcare is outlining before our eyes. This imposes detailed knowledge of the newest and modern developments which will alow us to control technologies in the future, not the other way around.
Dr. Marin Penkov
In medicine and healthcare the digital technologies would turn the unsustainable health systems into sustainable ones, would ensure cheaper, faster and more effective solutions. Technologies can win the battle with cancer, AIDS or viral diseases such as Ebola and SARS Cov-2 and guarantee the future of a healthier society consisting from healthier people.
The key to the correct development of medicine is working side by side with the new technologies, their proper perception and development by all involved in the healthcare system in order for them and the ones using them to remain actual through the following years. This is the reason why brave, curious and well-informed people are needed, to develop this sector entirely.
Unfortunately the great amount of false news and theories of conspiracies led to multiple fears.
A fear that robots will take the work of nurses, doctors and other health specialists!
A fear that artificial intelligence will control the world after just a few years!
A fear that adult and children will be addicted to the virtual reality!
A fear from gene engineering and control!
They all, though, have something in common: the fear of the unknown place, called future and what it might bring.
But as scary as it may seem at the moment, we cannot stop the technological development. Sooner or later we will understand that entire areas from our lives entirely transformed with the help of the new technologies. I truly believe, that technologies and people, side by side, together, are able to guarantee a better healthcare.
I suggest we focus on some of the nowadays technologies which are real and it is only a matter of time to step in really soon in the clinical practice and will fully change healthcare.
Artificial intelligence: The artificial intelligence is not a future, but a present with its potential to change entirely the face of the healthcare. The algorithms for artificial intelligence can organize medical records, project new treatment plans or to create medicines faster tan any habilitated or specialised medical staff.
Using super computers allows development of therapies for treatment from a database. In 2015, a virtual search was launched for safe, already developed drugs that could be processed to treat the Ebola virus. Thus, with the help of artificial intelligence, two drugs were discovered that can significantly reduce the contagious power of Ebola.
Algorithms have long been developed to help medical professionals analyze breast cancer. Google's DeepMind algorithm turns out to be much more accurate in identifying breast cancer, offering a reported reduction of 9.4% in false positives, where a mammogram is wrongly diagnosed as abnormal and a reduction of 11.5% in false negatives, where a cancer is missed.
The University of Essen, Germany has developed an AI algorithm for the analysis of a huge database of intergenetic research "Genomics", supporting the genetic analysis of tumors and merging the Imaging Diagnostic System "Radiomics" into a system "RadioGenomics" linking imaging phenotypes to the tumor genetic profile, a field commonly referred to as "radiogenomics”.
This is only a small part of the huge number of examples of the use of AI in medical practice - from the design of new medicines and image analysis to the systematization and processing of medical records. In this aspect, the prospects for artificial intelligence in medical practice are really vast.
Virtual reality: Virtual reality (VR) promises to drastically change both medical practice and patient health. In the future, we may follow the operation we undergo, as if holding the scalpel ourselves. Or we can travel anywhere in the world from our hospital bed.
VR is currently used to train future surgeons and by real surgeons to improve their surgical intervention. A recent study by the Harvard Business Review showed that surgeons who received VR training showed significantly better technical skills than their colleagues who received only traditional training, and the advantage is crushing - by as much as 230%! At the same time, it manifests itself in the more accurate and faster performance of surgical procedures.
VR technology is also beneficial for patients and has been shown to be effective in controlling pain. Women equipped with VR glasses and headphones with soothing sounds and landscapes overcome labor pains much more easily. Patients suffering from gastrointestinal, cardiac, neurological and postoperative pain have shown a decrease in the intensity of suffering when they use VR to distract them from painful stimuli. A pilot study in 2019 even showed that patients undergoing surgery had less pain and anxiety and improved their overall hospital stay.
Augmented reality (Augmented Reality – AR) defferentiates from VR in two aspects: users do not lose connection to reality and it places the information in our field of vision as quickly as possible. These distinctive features allows AR to be the leading force for the future of medicine; from both the healthcare providers and the recipients.
The use of augmented reality technology can help medical students better prepare for real operations, and will allow surgeons to hone their skills. The Microsoft HoloLens application is currently available to students, which is used to study anatomy through the HoloAnatomy application. Through it, medical students have access to detailed and accurate, albeit virtual, images of human anatomy to study the discipline without the need for real human bodies.
Another promising company, Magic Leap, creates a little bit more different headphones with augmented reality for healthcare purposes. Magic Leap partners with SyncThink for brain research and therapies and the company XRHealth in cooperation with the German Brainlab developes a therapeutic platform for the implementation of spatial computing technologies in healthcare.
Healthcare trackers, wearables and sensors
The future of medicine and healthcare is tightly related with the responsibility of the patients, as well as of people, who take care of their own health with the help of the new technologies. Medical tracking gadgets, wearables and sensors have become widespread in everyday life and allow us to have more information about ourselves and regain control of our own lives.
Through our personal smartphones and the connected to them devices we can already observe our sleep and control our training. They help us find the best exercises for our specific needs and abilities.
No matter whether you want to manage your weight better or your stress levels, cognitive abilities or we want to achieve a full control, we already have dozens of convenient applications. The beauty of these new devices and applications is that they really allow patients to monitor their condition constantly and in real time. Through them, each of us is able to control their health parameters at home and share the results with the GP or with the relevant medical facilities. Thus, these devices enable people to take control of their health and make more informed decisions.
Medical superscanner: The big dream of every medical specialist is to have an omnipotent device with which to diagnose and analyze any disease - something like a doctor's Swiss Army knife.
With the exponential advancement in healthcare technology, we now live in a world that offers such devices that were once simply the product of the wild science fiction imagination. There are now palm-sized devices that can measure heart rate, oxygen saturation, temperature, blood pressure and more! In addition to measuring many vital parameters, such devices can also be equipped with a camera for telemedicine purposes. Devices for measuring a wide range of parameters such as respiratory rate, heart rate, skin temperature, body position, activity levels, sleep state, gait, etc. are also being developed.
In the near future we will most likely see powerful microscopes on smartphones, for example, analyzing samples extremely quickly with the help of artificial intelligence. Sensors will be able to detect abnormalities in DNA or detect antibodies and specific proteins. An electronic nose, ultrasonic probe or almost everything we have at the moment can be attached to a smartphone and expand its functions. And we must be ready for that!
Genome decoding: In 2014, the human genome was decoded at a cost of approximately $ 2.7 billion. This is a huge amount, especially considering that in January 2017, the DNA sequencing giant Illumina unveiled a new machine that the company says is "expected one day “Order your entire genome for less than $ 100. This would mean that you may have a cheaper genetic test than a general blood test (for which prices vary between approximately BGN 100 and BGN 200). Some genetic tests used for an individual condition are about BGN 200 each.
The general genome test has a huge potential. It will provide you with valuable information about your sensitivity to drugs, multifactorial or monogenic medical conditions, and even your family history. In addition, there are already various areas that take advantage of genome sequencing, such as nutrigenomics, cross-feeding, dietetics, and genomics. In addition, such a test can also reveal conditions in which you are at risk, providing important information for taking preventive action.
Innovations in drug development: Currently, the process of developing new drugs is too long and too expensive. There is, though, ways for improving the development of drugs by using an artificial intelligence. Such new technologies and approaches already are and will be dominating on the pharmaceutical market through the following years. Many companies will start using AI for developing of new drug and new therapeutical solutions for a record short time and for speeding up the time for their placing on the market with minimized costs and risks to human life.
Another promising technolog in healthcare is testing of silicon drug. These are individual computer simulations, used in developing or regulatory evaluation of the medical device or intervention. While current technology and biological understanding does not allow fully stimulated clinical testings, there is a significant progress in this area with chip organs, already in use. HumMod or “the most complete mathematical model of human physiology ever created” has been used in several research projects. Virtual models have also been created by Institute of virtual physiological people (VPH) who are used for examination of heart disease and osteoporosis. Imagine if we could try thousands of new potential drugs on billions of virtual patient models in minutes? We may reach this stage in the near future.
Nanotechnologies: We live at the dawn of the era of nanomedicine. I believe that nanoparticles and nanodevices will soon work as precision drug delivery systems, cancer treatment tools, or as "miniature surgeons."
In 2014, researchers at the Max Planck Institute designed mussel-like microbots designed to literally swim through body fluids. Small, smart capsules are used to examine the colon in a non-invasive, problem-free way for the patient. In late 2018, MIT researchers created an electronic pill that can be operated wirelessly and transmit diagnostic information or release drugs in response to commands on the smartphone.
Nanotechnology is also advancing in the form of smart patches. At CES 2020, France-based Grapheal demonstrated its intelligent patch, which allows continuous wound monitoring, and its graphene core can even stimulate wound healing.
With the development of technology we will see more practical examples of nanotechnology in medicine. Future devices could even take biopsy samples for further analysis, while remote-controlled capsules could make the prospect of nanosurgeons a reality.
Robotics: One of the most exciting and fastest growing areas of healthcare is robotics. The developments vary from assistant-robots through surgeon robots to pharmaseuticals, disinfection robots or exoskeletons.
In 2019, we witnessed the first exoskeleton implant surgery in Europe and a person with quadriplegia capable of controlling an exoskeleton with his brain! There are many other applications for these sci-fi costumes, from assisting surgeons during long surgeries and nurses to lifting heavy patients to assisting patients with spinal cord injuries.
Robot companions also have a place in healthcare to help alleviate loneliness, treat mental health problems, or even help children with chronic illnesses. Some even have touch sensors, cameras, and microphones to help. their owners can interact with them.
3D printing: 3D printers can work wonders in all aspects of healthcare. We can now print bio-woven, artificial limbs, pills, blood vessels. In November 2019, researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, developed a method for 3D printing of living skin along with blood vessels. This development has been shown to be crucial for skin grafts in burn victims.
In 20 years, we will be witnessing a fundamental change from 'healthcare' to 'health'. And while diseases will never be completely eliminated through science, data and technology, we will be able to identify them earlier, intervene proactively and better understand their development to help patients more effectively and actively maintain their well-being.
The future will be focused on prevention and will be driven by companies taking on new roles to drive value in the transformed health ecosystem. The healthcare system will be driven by greater data connectivity; interoperable and open, secure platforms; and increasing consumer engagement.