The advancement of the digital age has undoubtedly created so many changes in the way healthcare, and medicine is practiced today. As a matter of fact, a lot of these tech innovations have already come and gone, moving us far beyond simple digitization and computerization.
Many of the new technologies today bear the promise of novel concepts within their respective study fields. But new technologies in healthcare represent a potential paradigm shift. Once more, these new technologies in healthcare may pave the way to revolutionize the healthcare space to the betterment of human health, comparable to the impact of the first commercial computers more than half a century ago.
The Internet of Things
Universal internet connectivity may seem such a simple idea. But when implemented on a very wide variety of devices, the benefit of interconnectivity and continuous information access immediately becomes apparent.
This is the primary theme of the internet of things (IoT), and by extension, the internet of healthcare things (IoHT). IoT is where multiple devices are interconnected, with each other, providing information to all related things around it. Only with IoHT, medical data is the prime focus.
The game-changing innovation of IoHT, therefore, lies within the following data-extraction related benefits:
- Methods of gathering medical data
- Availability of medical data
- Procedures based on gathered medical data
For example, in 2018, a presentation at the ASCO Annual Meeting unveiled a randomized clinical trial involving CYCORE, a smart IoT-based monitoring system, to be used by target patients who are in the process of receiving treatment for head and neck cancer.
The presentation showed that care providers were able to monitor the first signs of adverse side effects on patients as they happen. This allowed care providers to administer treatment very quickly, easing the burden of the otherwise very physically taxing procedure. The result? Significantly less severe symptoms were observed, despite the control group still doing their physician visits regularly.
As for other IoHT devices like wearable tech and controlled delivery devices, we have a plethora of applications, all fitting the basic conditions enumerated earlier. Of course, as a consequence, you do lose the advantage of privacy or even anonymity. But think of it as the application cost of this technology. The data needs to be managed by a third party entity, and the information has to reach medical professionals for effective use.
The invention of the internet is one of the most important milestones of humanity. But as revolutionary as the concept is, it was based on 20th-century telecommunications protocols, limiting its potential expansion.
5G changes all this. By running on a completely different frequency line, and using a completely different infrastructure system. A well-established 5G network has data transfer efficiency several times better than LTE, in terms of speed, latency, and quality.
As such, the immediate benefit of 5G networks in healthcare would be better communication between monitoring and measuring devices. Real-time updates won’t suffer from interruptions, and large imaging files, such as those generated by MRI or PET scanners, can be sent with almost no delay. Another quick benefit of a post-LTE faster internet is improving telemedicine. Real-time high-quality video can be sent with even higher clarity and lesser latency over almost any medium, including mobile devices.
But more importantly, 5G can revolutionize remote surgery operations. Remote surgery, or telesurgery, is not exactly a new concept. However, the technology is still hampered by technical issues such as lag over multi-national distances, as well as interruption, which can be catastrophic depending on the time-sensitivity of the medical procedure.
With a well-established 5G network infrastructure, lag is almost certainly going to be a thing of the past. In fact, at preset long-distances, the (lack of) delay would make it feel like the surgeons are in the same room, whether robotic tools are involved or just simple directional telepresence. The data-repetitive robustness of 5G networks would also significantly mitigate the chances of interruption, either by accident or intentional.
Additive manufacturing on very small scales can provide all sorts of innovations in creating highly-detailed and well-made items for local or personal use. In fact, personalized 3D printing is an entirely new paradigm shift of its own which is still in relative infancy stage.
In healthcare, the benefits of 3D printing are multi-disciplinary, depending on the immediate advantages that a specific procedure or treatment is aiming to utilize. Applying currently available 3D printing technologies, for example, is often used when designing ultra-low-cost prosthetic limbs. Not only are they cheap, but they are also easily scalable and can be printed quickly on demand.
More advanced forms of 3D printing in healthcare include the fabrication of drug delivery systems, and the super-precise control of dosage in the form of custom 3D-printed drugs. Of course, these applications are still under development, so their actual efficiency level is yet to be realized. However, several projects currently underway already shows promise. These pilot test concepts give us a glimpse of how advanced these applications can be in the next few decades.
But perhaps more controversially, the crux of 3D printing in healthcare lies in the quest to develop fully-functioning synthetic organs eventually. These are artificially made biological components that are complete with musculature, blood vessels, nerve connections, and the same level of strength as the patient’s original organ.
Many research studies have been done on the subject, but unfortunately, we can only print tissue layers successfully thus far. The best that we have that comes close is a 3D printed “beating” heart ventricle, which was presented in a research journal in 2019.
Augmented and Virtual Reality
Very significant developments in sensor technology and 3D graphics development led to the birth of virtual and augmented reality as we know it today. Consumer-level VR products such as Oculus Rift and HTC Vive offer immersive entertainment within fabricated worlds. At the other end, AR tools such as Google Translate for phones and mixed reality headsets like Microsoft’s HoloLens offer visual assistance by overlaying the real world with virtual information.
To be fair, the impact of VR in healthcare is not as revolutionary as other entries in this article. But they are still important and sufficiently game-changing because of how unique the applications are compared to other more “evolutionary” approaches.
For example, instead of using 3D printed physical models for training, medical students may simply opt to use VR hardware. A compatible software program could then be used to show the human body in rendered 3D. Alternatively, actual 4K footage of real locations and bodies may also be used, such as those utilized by pioneering VR medical companies like Medical Realities.
This works more or less the same with augmented reality, by feeding the AR glass/headpiece real-time analyzed data shown via notifications and measurements. The complexity of information is still yet to be advanced enough, of course. But it could be enough to simplify and hasten medical procedures by providing preliminary smart scans for medical professionals such as dentists.
On the patient side, the most cited potential use case of VR is simulated recovery. Virtual reality exposure therapy, for example, is an actual medical procedure that can be used to rehabilitate people from certain mental disorders. BRAVEMIND is one of the applications that use such therapy, and it was developed to help homecoming U.S. veterans cope better with PTSD after their military service period.
Neural Artificial Intelligence
The basic advantage of automation offered by artificial intelligence alone is a value adding benefit for healthcare procedures. However, in the last few years, more advanced forms of AI have yet again revealed even more applications that can transform the way medical institutions are generally operated.
Chatbots, for example, are increasingly getting better and better with their roles as virtual health assistants, to the point of specialization. Last year, New York-based Northwell Health launched a personalized chatbot specifically for patients set to undergo a colonoscopy procedure. The aim is to maintain information flow, to help educate patients through casual, conversation-like communication. This is because more than 40% of these patients tend to end up not continuing with the procedure. Mainly due to fear, which is caused by misinformation or direct lack of knowledge.
Even more complex are deep learning AI that can do analytical work originally intended for technical specialists. For instance, diagnosis can (theoretically) be provided by feeding the AI all available patient information, letting it learn all of the possible patterns and combinations. While still far from perfect, it is at least expected in the next few years that newer innovations can be integrated to help make it reliable enough for professional use.
Predicting drug interaction may be quite less complicated, but it is no less challenging for any related medical professional. Deep learning AI may also be trained to tackle potential complications with multiple drug use, and there are already several pilot research projects that aim to optimize the performance of any AI system given with the task.
The idea of computers being connected directly to living brains has been a staple of science fiction for many decades. The concept of brain-computer interfacing (BCI) goes as far back as the 1920s, with the invention of the electroencephalography (EEG). But it was only at the end of the 20th century and the first decade of the 2000s did we made the first real achievements in the field.
The first theoretical advantage of BCI in healthcare is the potential development of “neuro-prosthetics”, or prosthetic devices that can be directly controlled via the brain. This has been studied and presented in many research papers that discuss its design and use. However, we don’t have a complete working prototype yet. Both the technical requirement and level of technology have not yet been achieved.
More generally, however, digitization of human brain activity is the common end-goal of BCI. This goes beyond monitoring the brain for possible abnormalities. This is recording every electric signal made and attempting to translate its intention. Neuralink is perhaps the most ambitious project so far in this regard. It combines semi-invasive BCI with modern data transfer and telecommunication technologies, to monitor brain disorders at the single neural signal level.
Accuracy of brain activity measurement is still the main challenge in BCI. Of course, all pioneering BCI programs within the last few years have their methods of overcoming this. But before they are universally adopted, BCI will remain one of the most exclusive healthcare technologies on this list.
The most advanced technology in healthcare today is deservedly also the most controversial. Gene-editing may have been very inaccurate and unreliable before, but several major breakthroughs over the last few years have elevated its level today as a serious medical procedure in the near future.
It all started with the discovery that CRISPR-Cas9, a DNA sequence commonly used by compatible living things to snip and destroy DNA of invading microbes, can be isolated and used separately. Often commonly abbreviated as CRISPR, it is now the subject of many experiments involving the use of its super-precise DNA sequence editing abilities. While the technology is still relatively primitive, CRISPR is by far significantly more accurate than previous DNA editing techniques, and holds the promise of reaching the genetic holy grail of body feature customization.
Less popular are TALENs (Transcription Activator-Like Effector Nucleases), which are restriction enzymes that function similarly to CRISPR-Cas9, but are instead “programmed” to snip DNA at certain sites (as opposed to scanning recognizable DNA sequences from hostile sources and snipping them). In the field of gene-editing, TALENs have been used in modifying plant DNA. However, much like CRISPR, the gene-editing tool has also been utilized experimentally to eliminate genetic risks for certain diseases.
Another new gene-editing tool today is ZFNs (Zinc-Finger Nucleases), which is also a restriction enzyme, but an artificially made one. Because of its similar design, it works much like TALENs and CRISPR. However, its accuracy is quite lower, since the zinc finger domains cannot target DNA sequences specific enough. In the future, scientists hope to be able to find a way to combine all these gene-editing tools. This is in order to create an advanced gene-editing system that uses the best of what each tool offers.
Arriving at the Horizon of Future of New Technologies in Healthcare
Predicting the future of these current technologies is relatively easy from an extrapolation standpoint. Look at the milestones yet to be achieved and connect the dots from there.
However, this way of thinking does not include the possibility of brand new technologies in healthcare that will be discovered and developed over the course of the next few years. It’s likely that, within a short period of time, some of these healthcare technologies will be completely unrecognizable, especially if a yet-to-be-conceptualized technology appears or is forged out of the convergence of some of the technologies listed in this article.