Patient care is sometimes pushed forward by a momentous discovery, like germ theory or the invention of antibiotics. But far more often, steady improvements in allied sciences and technological advances across disciplines bring healthcare into the future. The technology that enables 21st century healthcare is no exception to this general trend, and these connected innovations are transforming medicine.
The Internet of Medical Things and blockchain are bringing convenience and efficiency
At the most basic level, the Internet of Medical Things (IoMT) enables patients’ vital signs to be monitored in real time thanks to various sensors and devices. Medical technologists are also keen to explore blockchain in healthcare. They see the potential to house electronic health records (EHR) on blockchain, providing ease of access for physicians and a secure home for sensitive data. And because blockchain establishes records over time, a patient’s complete medical history would be available at once. Moreover, because blockchain would record EHRs chronologically, physicians could easily determine which medication a patient is currently taking, separating these from the host of prescriptions they might find in standard medical records. This not only simplifies their work, but could also save lives.
3D printing could bring an end to organ transplant waiting lists
In medicine, 3D printing with ‘bio-ink’ made from a patient’s cells is changing the calculus of transplants, shifting the balance toward life for hundreds of thousands of people on waiting lists. Right now, patients deemed healthy enough for a transplant wait in line for an available genetic match. Even then, powerful anti-rejection drugs are needed to suppress their immune systems, often leading to opportunistic infections and a host of other complications.
But 3D printing, using an inorganic matrix embedded with the patient’s own cells, could potentially revolutionise transplants. Everything from dental implants to hearing aids to casts for broken limbs can now be printed, leading to an era of custom-made medicine. In the very near future, physicians will be able to custom-print organs for transplant, and no one needs to suffer repeated dialysis or the agony of waiting for an available kidney. Scientists from Tel Aviv University in Israel made an important breakthrough in this field. The team 3D-printed a small heart from human tissue. Though the heart, which is the size of a rabbit’s heart, isn’t big enough to be transplanted into a human body, it marks a huge step forward in the medical field. The researchers used a patient’s tissue to develop 3D printing ink necessary for the printing process. Since they used the patient’s own cells, this reduces the risk of organ rejection.
Robotic pharmacists and surgeons
Pharmacies are increasingly turning to robotic dispensaries, as the speed, precision, and accuracy of these machines far exceed human capacity. An automated system can fill as many as 150 prescriptions an hour, with no errors in counting or contents. And because they move pills directly from containers into bottles, there’s no danger of cross-contamination that plagues pill counters.
And in 2018, the UK-based company CMR Surgical developed a robotic surgery system called Versius. The robot is more flexible and versatile than other robot surgeons on the market. It consists of modular arms equipped with flexible joints that are controlled remotely by a human surgeon. What makes the robot so innovative is that Versius can perform laparoscopic surgery. Compared to conventional surgery, laparoscopic surgery usually leads to faster recovery and less pain, because it’s performed via small incisions. But the procedure is very hard to learn, and some surgeons simply can’t master it. However, the Versius robotic surgical system makes the job a lot easier.
Neurotech offers new hope to people with degenerative motor diseases
For decades, neuroscientists have been studying the brain’s activity to unravel the secrets of the tiny electrical impulses that are our thoughts. And they’ve made surprising progress. For instance, a team comprised of engineers from Kyoto’s Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute showed that people can control a robotic arm using their brain. The results of the demonstration, published in the journal Science Robotics, reveal that eight out of 15 people successfully completed a multitasking challenge of balancing a ball on a board using their hands, while grabbing a bottle with a brain-controlled robotic arm at the same time.
Virtual and augmented reality as a training tool
VR and AR are changing healthcare. Healthcare workers, for instance, can be immersed in virtual care settings, where they can be coached to deal with emergencies, patients, friends and family, or any other scenario for which education is necessary. The advantages of this approach are profound: because the training is both realistic and controlled, educators can offer real-time feedback, replaying the scenario as needed. This not only reduces costs, but also improves outcomes.
AR, by contrast, overlays the ‘real’ with information. By wearing AR glasses, for example, a physician might be able to ‘see’ inside a patient’s body, watch the irregularity of their heartbeat, or ‘see’ their vital signs as a colourful, easy to interpret graph, floating to their side. Moreover, AR is demonstrating the impact on surgical training.
The future of healthcare is bright, and it’s these incredible innovations that make it so. Nano- and biotech are helping to win the war against cancer, surgical robots will soon broaden access to the most experienced and talented surgeons, and the IoMT is providing physicians and caregivers with an unprecedented wealth of data to improve and customise patient care. Blockchain is poised to revolutionise medical record keeping, and VR and AR are improving the skills of surgeons and caregivers as never before. Collectively, technology is transforming the healthcare landscape.