Healthcare always has to be evolving. Constantly reacting, leading and adjusting to available technology and scientific knowledge. As with any industry, the changes new technology brings to the medical world span processes both mundane and magical. Some of what we take for granted in healthcare today would be considered astounding half a century ago. Even much of the ordinary tech that helps today’s healthcare personnel do their jobs better, and to save patients’ lives, would seem like science fiction just a couple of decades ago. How is digital technology helping healthcare stay ahead of the curve and what ways is it helping transform healthcare as we know it.
Of all science fiction worlds, Star Trek’s is renowned for predicting correctly which way medical technology would go. Take the tricorder, for example, which appeared in the original show in the 1960s and has been a staple medical device throughout the Star Trek universe’s television spinoffs and movies. It’s a small, mobile, and non-invasive device that helps doctors diagnose a variety of health conditions and determine the course of a patient’s treatment.
Photo by Pexelson
In July 2017 at the American Association for Clinical Chemistry (AACC) annual expo, Final Frontier Medical Devices unveiled DxtER, a tablet-style device that utilizes non-invasive sensors to collect data on biological functions, vital signs, and body chemistry. Using artificial intelligence (AI) – partly based on accumulated knowledge from clinical emergency medicine – it analyzes information based on answers from patients and what sensors detect to quickly assess a subject’s health.
This year, with the spotlight shining brightly upon healthcare due to the coronavirus pandemic, medical technology has taken center stage, and health systems worldwide are investing in new equipment and methods to make healthcare more efficient as well as keeping healthcare workers and patients safer.
Digital Transformation & COVID-19
What science fiction imagined is quickly becoming reality. The world’s current medical technology doesn’t quite rival Star Trek’s medical equipment and knowledge yet, though it’s coming increasingly closer. The changes this disease facilitated brought to the fore alternative ways to help the sick and keep healthy people well. The novel coronavirus has noticeably altered the way healthcare operates, and many of these adaptations will continue being used, becoming commonplace even after this season of trepidation passes.
Some methods to contain this disease’s spread are strangely similar to those used over a hundred years ago, such as masks and social distancing. Yet technology gave healthcare workers an edge over their 20th-century counterparts, playing an important role in worldwide efforts to contain COVID-19. With no effective treatments or vaccines, governments and healthcare professionals could only mitigate its worst effects and contain the spread of this highly communicable virus.
Though digital transformation has become rather ordinary in many other industries, in 2020 the medical world took to it decisively. Digital technology in the healthcare industry helped facilitate strategies that allowed healthcare workers to combat the virus aggressively, and the knowledge humanity’s gleaned will inevitably be repurposed for future disease outbreaks.
One of the more celebrated cases in this story is South Korea. It and other countries integrated digital technology to contain and mitigate, using it for surveillance, testing, contact tracing, and in mandating strict quarantines. The government’s quick reaction, combined with high-tech solutions, helped the country flatten its curve rapidly and effectively, making widespread lockdowns in the country unnecessary. It’s also unsurprising that South Korea’s market for medical technology was touted as the fastest-growing in Asia in 2014, as its society has largely embraced widespread digital transformation.
Here are but a few instances of how digital technology helped healthcare transform in 2020 in response to the pandemic:
AI & Big Data:
Knowing who carried the disease and where it went was imperative to controlling its spread. Migration maps and other tools – through gathering data in real-time – allowed Chinese authorities to track the movement of people who visited the Wuhan market by using social media and payment applications. This data allowed AI to utilize machine learning and forecast how the disease would spread, which guided government strategies regarding surveillance and inspections when travelers arrived from outside its borders.
Hong Kong required people to wear a wristband while self-isolating, using cloud technology to alert authorities when quarantine was breached. Elsewhere in China, cloud-based AI allowed almost instantaneous sharing of CT scans, which helped detect pneumonia cases related to COVID-19. It differentiated the damage caused to lungs by the novel coronavirus from that of other lung diseases and sped up the diagnostic process significantly. COVID-Net – an open-source network available to medical workers globally – can now swiftly detect and discern COVID-19 cases with these chest x-rays, using freely available cloud-based tools to screen patients and direct them to appropriate places of treatment near them.
E-learning has played a significant role in helping to train new healthcare professionals. It ensured that medical students in Uganda could identify the primary symptoms of COVID-19 and administer strategies that could help prevent disease transmission. In this sense, these students were no different than those in grade schools, high schools, or even other university students. The pandemic also disrupted healthcare education, and many medical students needed to utilize web-based and cloud-based resources to help them prepare for difficult exams like the USMLE. Certain tele-learning companies recognized this and even provided free student resources to facilitate such learning.
Since asymptomatic carriers seemed a key aspect of the disease’s spread, Iceland launched widespread testing of individuals who didn’t display symptoms. Utilizing mobile technology, its government-collected data on those reporting symptoms and overlapped this with genomic and quantifiable datasets to help uncover the pathology of the novel coronavirus.
Stories about how technology helped save us from the 2020 pandemic will be told for many generations to come. But digital technology offers healthcare so much more than mitigation techniques; it taught us again how healthcare technology helps save lives. Yet though the pandemic instigated a serious disruption in the healthcare industry, its appearance also rushed new technologies to fill the gaps, and these technologies offer additional options for disease treatment and prevention.
Photo by Pexelson
Healthcare Beyond COVID-19
Looking to the future beyond the ravages of this disease, many technologies used specifically for this pandemic will probably soon become standard when patients seek healthcare. Though medical workers globally continue to be tested, this year has opened the gates to new tools that will help us treat and prevent disease.
There may be a day when 3D printers can produce whole synthetic organs, but already this technology shows immense promise as a healthcare tool. Today, it’s used to create prototypes more quickly. It’s also used by medical workers to assist with organ transplants and tissue repair, including producing natural-looking skin for burn victims.
Blockchain & Clinical Trials:
Healthcare delivery will change due to in part to this innovative solution for storing and transmitting data. According to Wavestone US – an IT consultancy – blockchain allows greater transparency while protecting patients’ privacy in clinical trials. Blockchain technology manages complex flows of data and allows health systems involved in research to improve the sanctity of their research by creating greater efficiency and more robust data protection.
While big data can help healthcare providers to determine admission rates in order to keep medical facilities properly staffed, it can also help predict what illnesses or diseases will become problematic in the near future. By analyzing keyword activity on search engines and in social media channels, searches regarding medical conditions, health, or diseases generally can help healthcare facilities prepare. Imagine being able to predict when influenza outbreaks may occur. Aggregating information through big data also helps healthcare workers develop healthier lifestyles, so it also acts in conjunction with preventive medicine.
It’s easier to prevent a disease than to cure it, and the rapidly developing field of nanomedicine will allow doctors to not only effectively diagnose and treat diseases but to prevent them as well. Nanotechnology in medicine concentrates on targeting very specific areas within the body, and this promising area of medicine looks likely to be able to combat such conditions as cancer by targeting malignant tumors with precision.
Telemedicine includes two-way video consultations between doctor and patient, which offers shorter waiting times, improved access in rural areas, and greater efficiency. But it can go well beyond simple doctor to patient consultations. Telemonitoring of such things as disease symptoms, vital signs, and even blood oxygen levels can all be done remotely now. Even technologies that may not seem directly associated with healthcare, such as eOriginal’s cloud-based system for storing digital and electronic signatures, can serve as an official means to control sensitive patient data, making telemedicine more viable and safer for patients.
This is an abridged look at technology and how tomorrow’s healthcare may look. Yet there is so much more technology can do in healthcare. Perhaps one day we’ll no longer need human doctors, as they’re replaced by algorithms and AI entities that operate via machine learning. We may one day speak through screens to holograms that combine with virtual reality and AI to diagnose conditions, as happened in Star Trek’s Voyager. Regardless of what tomorrow brings, it’s sure to be unexpected.
Continuing Partnerships Between Healthcare & Technology
As with everything technology touches, there will inevitably be surprising ways in which these tools are put to use. A big part of the reason why the morbidity rate of the current pandemic hasn’t reached the tens of millions who died during the flu outbreaks after World War I, is due in large part to the accumulated medical knowledge on this planet and the healthcare technology that supports it. That health outcomes remain substantially better than that of our ancestors is a testament to our own technological progress.
The continued partnerships between technology and healthcare sectors will continue to help humanity expand and discover new methods and devices for further improving patient treatment, going to places where no one has gone before. As healthcare paradigms shift, from treating sickness to preventing it, what matters most is the advancement and continued accumulation of humanity’s medical knowledge. While the future is here, the future we imagine for tomorrow will inevitably be quite different than what we envision it today, much like that predicted by Star Trek over half a century ago.