Technological developments in the healthcare industry may not create as much of a buzz as developments in the consumer sector, but the impact of technology in healthcare is just as profound. In fact, we may be at the cusp of another paradigm shift in medicine, with the implementation of several ground-breaking technologies of the last decade.
So, what has indeed changed? Information. The primary impact of modern technology on healthcare is centered on all developments related to how we obtain and process information today.
Modern Healthcare Technology: Electronics and Computers
Almost all modern healthcare technologies that we enjoy today started development during the 20th century. Monitoring equipment such as the electroencephalograph (ECG) began its deployment in hospitals during the century’s first few decades. Other inventions, such as the heart-lung machine, began appearing after World War II. The most pivotal ones (MRI, LASIK, ESWT, among other devices) were developed shortly after commercial computers became widely available.
Today, we still use many of these tools and devices, although more advanced and refined than before. Complex analog alarm systems for patient drug administration, for example, are now mostly managed through smart software systems that provide a variety of automated assessments for the healthcare professional.
The Impact of Technology on Healthcare and Pioneering Technological Advancements
The emergence of commercial computers during the 1970s created ripple effects on every organization, business, or industry dealing with handling massive amounts of information. For the healthcare industry, three major technological revolutions occurred:
Whereas documentation was previously written directly on paper, information can now be inputted digitally. The earliest iterations of business computers did not allow for much data to be saved or processed. As such, computers simply functioned as an alternative data input interface, a convenient one that allowed errors to be corrected on the fly and enabled visual organization of data to be more precise.
Today, with computers several thousand times more powerful than before, and with newer technologies such as the internet, keeping and using any type of medical record has never been easier. Almost every hospital globally, even in developing regions, uses digital information to store and retrieve medical records on the fly. Hospitals already have access to telephones before. But exchanging information via digital networking helps relay every detail required without having to go there physically.
Even in the healthcare industry, processing minor workloads, inputting data, and organizing information are considered menial tasks that can be repetitive and counterproductive depending on its implementation. Thus, it makes sense that this industry also significantly benefited from digital automation technologies that were developed, honed, and refined at the beginning of the 21st century.
Workload automation in medical record entries is perhaps the first thing that comes to mind, and it is most likely also the most important. Though adoption is still not completely universal, many standard hospitals today now have their databases and online (cloud-based) systems for patient data record keeping.
Of course, there are many more applications, including highly complex procedures such as regulated drug delivery. But these are mostly case-to-case and are not always used for every patient.
Lastly, when advanced medical devices are combined with these digital systems, integration is established, setting up a complex web of information relay and delivery. In fact, we have an official term for this, a derivative of the internet-of-things (IoT) known as healthcare IoT.
For example, manually inputting patient data is one thing, but constantly updating patient data through remote monitoring is an entirely new integration point that we can do today in healthcare IoT. Not only does this provide real-time data of the patient’s treatment progress, but it also allows automation to kick in. It can instantly update databases, relaying other recommended information that is based on the data’s assessment.
The integration level can even be as simple as within just a two-way short-range device, such as a smartphone with an app that connects it to an insulin pump.
Statistical Milestones in Healthcare Technology
Some of the most important milestones in modern healthcare technology are as follows:
Universal Electronic Health Record (EHR) System Adoption
According to a report by the Office of the National Coordinator (ONC) for Health Information Technology, EHR system adoption has significantly increased after the first decade of the 21st century just in the United States alone. Specifically, in 2008, only 9.4 per cent of U.S. hospitals had any sort of basic EHR system implemented. This grew over a 6-year period to about 76% in 2014.
Even better, 96.9% of these systems in 2014 were accredited and certified by the Department of Health and Human Services.
Telehealth Just as Effective as In-Person Visits
The World Health Organization states that telecare is the ”delivery of health care services, where patients and providers are separated by distance.” Even just after 2010, almost more than 50% of all WHO member countries have a national telehealth policy of some sort, with varying degrees of implementation based on the available telecommunications infrastructure.
Being one of the most straightforward applications of modern technology to healthcare, more than a third of the respondents have multi-layered integrated telehealth systems for every possible major medium of information.
So Much More Health Apps Than You Can Ever Use
As of the third quarter of the year 2020, the number of health-related apps available to smartphones and other mobile devices has risen to 48,608. This is sourced from the latest report by Statista, and this actually covers apps in the Apple App Store alone.
To be fair, this represents only about an incremental 7.9% increase in the number of apps since the previous year. However, compared to 2015, a year when smartphones and tablets are already quite commonplace, the improvement shows a significant 71.5% increase (28,343 apps).
The Internet of Medical (Related) Things
It is anticipated that by this next decade (2020 and beyond), investment in connected medical devices will grow from $15 billion (2017) to $52 billion in the next following years (2022). The internet of medical things (IoMT), as they are called, is expected to let its respective production industries grow as connectivity between devices becomes more complex.
Of course, in general, portable or mobile medical devices are quite simple and easy to implement. This is reflected by the same report, which also shows that medical devices own the largest share within IoMT applications (36%), only followed by systems and software (27%).
Most Impactful Technologies in Healthcare Today
But while several baseline technologies are now being universally adopted by healthcare institutions worldwide, a few very notable potentially game-changing technologies do exist for healthcare in general:
(Ultra Resource-Efficient) Wearables
Wearable technology has benefited the healthcare industry even before the advent of modern computer standards. However, these wearable devices are usually very niche (think of pacemakers), not as resource-efficient, and are custom-made for every user.
Today, with the massive proliferation of mobile devices, wearables have become significantly more advanced, more power/data-efficient, and most importantly, more universally accessible. For example, Starkey’s Livio AI is a one-size-fits-all smart hearing aid that can selectively filter certain types of noise and amplify the sources that may be important for the user.
3D printing is the design and local manufacture of custom-built items and components based on an open-source or downloaded schematic. The technology is primarily used to provide quick access to custom-fitted assistive items (such as hearing aids or prosthetic components), though more complex applications, such as drug intake systems, are also available.
However, even more revolutionary, the technology has started its foray into bioengineering. Instead of creating artificial replacements, 3D printers can instead “print” body parts. In the future, it is expected that a sufficiently advanced form of technology will allow for full organ duplication, immensely curtailing all current issues in the organ transplantation market.
Deep Learning (AI)
Artificial intelligence applications offered a good number of benefits to healthcare systems over the decades. Basically, anything that could help us save time analyzing loads of accumulated medical data we incorporated into AI.
However, deep learning takes the game way further. Instead of simply using the most advanced drug discovery program for manual checking, the AI will adapt and learn on its own, analyzing more and more complex patterns in ways the human brain can’t even imagine. It may not be perfect now, but it is easy to imagine that predictive healthcare AI will be at the forefront of medical diagnosis within a few short decades.
Significant strides in the development of more powerful computing hardware have at last allowed computers to achieve “true” VR. This is backed up by companies like Oculus, HTC, and even Microsoft, whose VR headsets employ designs that provide fully immersive experiences, so long as the proper hardware is set.
As for its role in healthcare, there are several applications in development:
- Training – users wearing VR hardware can watch medical procedures in real-time and directly from the medical professional’s viewpoint.
- Therapy – certain concepts attempt to use VR as an outlet of relaxation, either to ease long-term afflictions, shorten recovery time, lessen anxiety before a medical procedure, or even reduce the (overall) sensation of pain.
- Experience – using VR, individuals with specific physical disabilities can experience the entire world with relative normality.
The historical development of brain-machine interfaces required long-term and dedicated research into the human brain. Today, we can somewhat develop systems that allow patients limited control over electronic tools and connected computers. But there are still a plethora of challenges to overcome. The most important of which is the accurate decipherment of human brain signals into digital data.
However, Neuralink may have the key to finally solving this long-standing problem. Being one of the startups founded by tech magnate Elon Musk, the company is set out to yet again disrupt the healthcare technology industry as a whole. By introducing a brand new refined method of hardware integration, plus the utilization of deep learning, the startup hopes to unlock the secrets of brain signalling.
CRISPR, or short for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, is a special DNA sequence naturally found in multi-cellular living beings. The CRISPR-Cas(9) system is essentially an immune system element, responsible for detecting and cutting off RNA or DNA sequences of previously known immune threats.
If separated, CRISPR can potentially function as a super high-precision DNA snipping (and therefore editing) tool. Scientists haven’t fully mastered its use yet, because even though it can accurately snip DNA sequences, researchers still don’t understand the full extent of what such “edits” can do to the living creature.
In fact, the most controversial use of CRISPR to date was doctor Zhang Renli’s illegal attempt to use CRISPR to edit the genes of newly born twins to grant them potential HIV immunity, disregarding the possible side effects of the gene edits.
Directions for the Near Future
The future of many of the simpler healthcare technologies in use today, such as wearables, or even just the digitization of medical documents, is easier to predict in a relative sense. At the very least, we know the general direction where they are headed, as its user base increases worldwide.
However, many of the more complex and still-in-development healthcare technologies branch out, so to speak, “into the unknown.” For example, virtual reality can still significantly change depending on how its technologies evolve, despite seemingly being simple as a concept. Will we continue the direct-sense approach? Or will we have new methods that would integrate brain-machine interfaces into the experience?
Should any of these come to fruition, its next applications in healthcare would also be significantly different.
Another element is the discovery of new treatments themselves. What if we are to discover a new revolutionary drug within the next decade? Research would definitely focus next to its mass production. As such, new technologies would also need to be developed accordingly.
Lastly, unpredictable challenges in healthcare can suddenly cause huge changes in overall healthcare technology development. The concept of a future viral outbreak has already been proposed several times over the decades. But none were even remotely prepared for the economic onslaught brought upon by COVID-19. These too would affect healthcare technologies moving forward, in order to mitigate similar incidences in the future.
A Warning …and a Reminder.
We have certainly learned a lot about human anatomy since the medical revolution of the 17th century. Gone are the days of using miasma to explain incurable diseases. We’ve come far with all the medical inventions and discoveries of the 20th century and eventually welcomed digital information as an inevitable component of healthcare.
But we from the 21st century still have much to learn. The impact of technology on healthcare is still an ongoing process, a procedure that is now less about trial and error and more about analysis and optimization of the information around us.