Walk into any hospital and the link between medicine and technology will become clear. The amount of high tech machinery can make people feel like they’ve stepped into a sci-fi story. But most of these technologies have already been tested and perfected over the years. Many of the latest technological breakthroughs have amazing implications for the future of medicine. Some are currently being perfected and others are awaiting proper integration. But seven are poised to change the face of medicine.
1. Improved Prosthetics
Many people might remember the debates surrounding the Beijing Olympics. The question centered on whether a double amputee could be allowed to participate. Not because he was too slow, but because the artificial limbs were so good that they might provide him with too much of an advantage. This debate showed the world how far the state of the art had progressed. But on the other side, it’s estimated that around 400,000 people who need prosthetic limbs can’t afford them. And even people who can are often placed under a considerable financial burden for even relatively low tier prosthetics.
This is rapidly changing due to progress in 3D printing. It’s already proving itself one of the most important emerging technologies in healthcare due to sheer versatility. But prosthetics are a particularly good fit for 3D printing. Prosthetic limbs require quite a bit of tweaking and modification to work with any given individual’s unique physiological structure. 3D printing can bypass much of this by creating individualized parts as needed and for comparatively little cost. Changing a few numbers in a schematic and hitting enter can provide what would otherwise have required multiple sessions to manually modify equipment.
3D printing is also one of the most important emerging technologies in healthcare due to the designs. Prosthetics currently have a reputation for being somewhat aesthetically unappealing. But 3D printing provides people with a greatly expanded range of choices. Even to the point of allowing younger patients a chance to emulate their favorite superheros.
2. Printing Organic Material on Demand
3D printing might not be limited to inorganic material for much longer. It’s one of the most important emerging technologies in healthcare for good reason. 3D printing is a way of constructing physical material around specific digital patterns. The norm now is to use plastics and metal. But in the future this process might be able to use people’s own cells to construct new organs.
Testing is already underway with the ITOP. The Integrated Tissue and Organ Printing System has successfully printed out new tissue in animal studies. The tissue is even more remarkable for the fact that there’s no risk of rejection. The tests showed recipients perfectly integrating the 3D printed material into their bodies.
Being able to print organic material would create a whole new category of important emerging technologies in healthcare. It’ll almost certainly start with some of the more basic elements of the human body. But it’s easy to imagine a future where entire organs might be printed on demand. It’s one of the most important emerging technologies in healthcare due in part to the fact that it can be so easily tailored to a wide variety of medical applications.
3. Personal Health Tracking Apps
People often complain that nutritional studies can be misleading. Headlines constantly list out seemingly contradictory information about whether this or that food is healthy. The main reason is that nutritional studies are surprisingly difficult to perform. There’s too many ethical issues to force people to stay on any kind of abnormal diet for very long simply to gather data. Even more so if there’s suspicions that it might be harmful.
But diet and fitness apps where people can enter their daily routine provide a huge amount of information. This isn’t currently being used to collect medical data. In the future it’s safe to assume that any of the popular options or even some newcomers might allow users to opt in to a medical program.
At the moment most nutrition studies use meta-analysis. This process looks through the data from existing experimental studies which have also kept records of patient nutrition. This is useful, but limited for a number of different reasons.
Having a much larger database of user submitted nutritional information would offer up a whole host of medical benefits for researchers. For example, if a particular diet was thought to provide benefits to people suffering from a particular condition than researchers could quickly scan through the user submitted data to see if there was any evidence of correlation.
As it is now, researchers are often left waiting many years to get proper data when they suspect that a particular food or drink might impact overall health.
4. EHR: The Electronic Health Record
EHR continues the trend of breakthroughs coming from data collection. The importance of data collection can be highlighted by using music search engines as a familiar metaphor. The internet contains an estimated 4.5 billion individual pages. But search engines are able to sort through all of this data to match up multiple keywords. It’s possible because even though the pages offer diverse forms of information, they all operate under a standardized system.
EHR offers something similar for the medical community. It’s an attempt to collect the entirety of a patient’s medical information within a single system. At the moment there’s most certainly room for growth and improvement. Different implementations are also competing against each other to become the industry standard. It’s easy to see the utility for future innovations though.
To go back to an earlier example, integration with fitness apps might offer a secondary set of information for medical professionals to look through. Many people also feel that further integration of automated biometric systems into EHR records will be one of the larger breakthroughs in upcoming years.
For example, someone at risk for a heart condition might need to wear monitoring equipment for a while. The heart monitor itself will do just that, monitor the heart. The data might be stored locally, within a remote EHR and by the equipment distributors. Additionally if GPS based location data is also collected than doctors would even be able to instantly combine a search for spikes and environmental oddities to find correlations.
5. Smaller Diagnostic Equipment Based on Mobile Phone Technologies
Of course medical data is itself dependent on other factors. In particular, diagnostic devices are a staple of medical treatment centers. From clinics to hospitals, people are accustomed to trips which consist of little more than having medical statistics measured and logged. It’s been the best way to do things for a long time. But there’s some obvious disadvantages. The biggest is that coming in to measure something will only show how it’s doing at that single point in time.
Diagnostic equipment is usually too expensive and complex for home use by patients. But big changes have been coming from surprising sources. The smartphone revolution has created new economies focused on packing small devices with a combination of powerful sensors and processors. Smart watches and fitness bands have extended that trend even further.
Android, one of the more popular operating systems on smartphones, already powers a surprising number of mobile monitoring devices. Some cardiac monitors are shockingly similar to the phones people already have in their pockets. Even better, smartphones are designed around the idea of expanding hardware through wireless networks and this translates to medical equipment as well. Cardiac monitoring systems can separate data collection and transmission into two separate pieces of hardware.
The future of diagnostic equipment should continue to ride on phone related innovations. Smaller phones will mean smaller diagnostic equipment in the medical industry. Phone processor growth will turn into growth of dedicated processors for medical equipment. And it goes on from there in many different directions.
6. Augmenting Senses with Technology
Most people don’t really consider just how much sense based data goes through their phone every day. Bluetooth earbuds can handle not just audio output, but input as well. So called smart glass options like Google Glass always provide on visual output. Connected smart watches provide haptic feedback and varying degrees of motion tracking. Pedometers and GPS provide a virtual sonar that would be the envy of bats and dolphins. All of this is usually framed around entertainment or fitness.
But people with disabilities are finding themselves with a whole host of new tools as a result of these advances. As mobile sensors become more advanced and portable they also become increasingly capable of compensating for biologically based senses.
It’s easy to see how deaf people in the future might be able to read out real time transcriptions of conversations around them. Or to imagine blind people getting audio readouts of their environment through a combination of map data and other sensory information. At the moment hints of this can even be seen from continuing integration of cochlear implants with Bluetooth standards. One can expect more emerging technologies in healthcare to focus on augmenting people’s senses as mobile technologies continue to advance.
Robots have long been a staple of science fiction. They’ve ever so slowly been becoming science fact without people really noticing. At the moment robots can be seen vacuuming carpets and working on clogged gutters. But in the near future they might also be caring for people who have medical problems.
Telepresence robots are already in use. These devices give people the opportunity to remotely operate a small robot which can perform some basic tasks. It’s a method to help patients from remote locations when one can’t physically make the trip. But in the near future these robots will become increasingly autonomous.
In particular, simple tasks such as sorting medications for a particular time of day are especially well suited to medical robots. In fact, many hospitals are already using less portable forms of the technology in their pharmacies. Robots will never be able to replace the care of a nurse or the pharmaceutical expertise of a pharmacist. But the technology is very well suited to help those professionals when they’re not able to directly attend to a patient.
Looking at the Future of the Medical Industry
Versatility is the thread linking most emerging technologies in healthcare. One of the most exciting things about modern technology comes from how easily it can be modified to fit into different settings. The more easily technologies can be repurposed, the more easily they can be fit together to create even more amazing results. This brings medical tools to a point where imagination can help create powerful results in a surprisingly short amount of time. And for increasingly low price points.