Health tech is taking over our clinics and hospitals, helping doctors with unprecedented insights. But that’s not all – responsibility for our own health is becoming reality, with wearables and telemedicine empowering anyone at all.
An accurate diagnosis or an optimal treatment plan isn’t a given in the most modern healthcare systems. The vast amount of data that needs to be analyzed first exceeds human capabilities, and the information we can collect will only continue piling up.
Armed with accurate data, technologies can continue to boom. Doctors who see under your skin, printed organs, and virtual doctors are just a cherry on top of the future that can’t come soon enough. Which technologies have already started to reinvent health?
Virtual reality: calmer patients and perfectly ready doctors
While most of us think of VR mostly in terms of fun and entertainment, it can do miracles in healthcare.
It can calm the nerves of anxious patients or moms in labor: looking at peaceful landscapes sounds much better than the hospital surroundings, after all. Even more importantly, the doctors can learn, train and rehearse procedures before they cut us open. “Immersive VR simulations help learners build new memories through realistic experiences that traditional methods cannot provide,” said Rachel Umoren (MD, MS) of University of Washington and Seattle Children’s Hospital, for Oculus blog.
Oculus, the company behind the popular VR headsets, may be known mostly for digital gaming & entertainment, but they also do some incredible work in medicine. In this video, you can see how life-like the experience of a high-risk pediatric trauma situation is in virtual reality. Medical students can get the natural feel of the procedure itself, but it’s also a complete emotional experience. The pressure is (almost) real when the paramedics, nurses, technicians, and terrified parents watch every doctor’s move and anxiously wait for the outcome.
3D printing: Transplants, upgraded
Desperate waiting for a donor transplant organ could be history thanks to 3D printing. In 2020, scientists from Carnegie Mellon University printed the first fully flexible, life-size human heart – and it’s a thing of beauty. See for yourself.
Augmented reality: Eyes that can see everything
How much easier would it be to cut someone open on that operating table if you could see inside? Some surgeons already know the feeling. While augmented reality is far from mainstream, some hospitals have successfully performed procedures where doctor’s eyes were augmented with state-of-the-art glasses. A holographic projection was placed over the treated area, and before the doctor cuts, they can see a broken bone, tumor, or an injury in 3D.
On top of visualizing the procedure, surgeons can also communicate with professionals anywhere in the world in real time and collaborate should the surgery require specialist insights. One of the companies working on the technology is Microsoft: check out the HoloLens 2 in action.
Nanorobots: the tiniest miracle messengers
Nanorobots are smaller than one-millionth of a meter, yet, they can be a game-changer for medicine. They’ve already proved it – for example, scientists managed to program them to travel within a human body and cut off blood supply from a tumor. As a result, the cancerous mass has shrunk. Since nanorobots are extremely precise, it’s possible to target them wherever it’s needed. They can travel through our system and destroy tissue, decontaminate toxins or bacteria, deliver a drug, and reach areas that were impossible to treat before.
Telemedicine: clinic in your phone
Going to your doctor with anything that needs professional attention is impractical at the very least. Especially in pandemic times, a clinic or a hospital is the last place you want to be. Technology will allow for fewer personal visits in clinics, and the telemedicine industry will continue booming. As Yossi Vardi, the godfather of Israel’s hi-tech industry, explained at the Reflect Festival, the pandemic escalated this trend.
“We see a wave of remote testing, remote reading of vital signs, automatic reading of vital signs. Today, in order to read something remotely, you don’t need a device to have its own autonomous transmission. It can send the reading by Bluetooth to a nearby telephone, and the telephone can send it forward,” he said. “Again, we see devices popping up very rapidly, so you don’t have to go to the doctor who will read your vital signs; you can do it at home and then transmit – this is a huge industry that is under development right now,” he added.
Wearables: your daily companions
Your Fitbits and whatnots will be getting a whole lot smarter and will be able to go further when tracking your health. James Park, Fitbit’s CEO, is very keen on unleashing the full potential to the users. Back on the 2019 TechCrunch, Park mentioned that the focus is on wellness first and foremost, and they want to empower their customers even more. “When they see themselves moving toward their goals, they’ll keep investing in our products,” he said.
Artificial Intelligence: the data engine fueling it all
AI’s momentum has been building up in medicine since the early 70ties, and its progress had escalated immensely when machine learning hype started. At this point, machines can learn without significant human input and thus analyze mountains of data, predict and even suggest sophisticated diagnoses. We haven’t even scratched the surface of what Artificial Intelligence can do for medicine – but it will be crucial to grasp its enormous computing power as soon as possible. Right now, a human simply doesn’t have the capacity to make an informed decision considering all available data.
“Over the last ten years of my career the volume of data has absolutely gone exponential. I would have one image on a patient per day: their morning X-ray. Now, if you get an MRI, it generates literally hundreds of images, using different kinds of filters, different techniques, all of which convey slightly different variations of information. It’s just impossible to even look at all of the images,” said Robert Truog, head of the Harvard Medical School Center for Bioethics and the Frances Glessner Lee Professor of Legal Medicine, outlined for Harvard Gazette.
“Psychologists say that humans can handle four independent variables, and when we get to five, we’re lost. So AI is coming at the perfect time. It has the potential to rescue us from data overload,” he concluded.
If these technologies are only the tip of the iceberg, medicine is in for a wild ride. While reaping the benefits, we can’t forget about the significant risks, especially regarding data collection. We’ve already seen that human bias tends to sneak into the data collected and interpreted by AI, and in the case of medicine, that’s a matter of life and death. As Harvard Gazette points out, that’s not the only problem – as AI becomes more and more independent, humans may not be able to understand how it came to a particular conclusion. That’s a scary prospect when you imagine that doctors need to decide about someone’s treatment. How difficult is it to make a decision you can’t fully identify with it?
According to Ashish Jha, Dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health, we’ll need to remember that the human aspect of decision-making is still crucial, no matter how advanced technology gets. “I think the Boeing 737 Max example is a classic example. The system said the plane is going up, and the pilots saw it was going down but couldn’t override it,” he explained.
And that’s something to remember: technology, including health tech, is not here to replace humanity. Even at its most astonishing, we can’t rely on transferring all of our responsibilities to a machine.
Image credit: Artem Podrez @artempodrez on Pexels