While the scalpel is unlikely to disappear from operating rooms any time soon, it is bound to have new company in the form of 3D printers, virtual reality interfaces and nanorobots. Doctors may get excited over the prospects of rapid advances in IT and modern technologies.
Civilization diseases, societal ageing, new microbe mutations that evade identification coupled with faltering health care systems are all inevitably a part of our near future. Medicine confronts such challenges with attention and hope, even a growing appetite as it observes the rise of the latest technologies. Doctors, researchers and patients have a good reasons to be upbeat about the future. Medicine of the future.
Can we be healthier?
I wish to highlight areas of overlap between technology and medicine in which I sense a potential for particularly momentous changes. As endeavors to prolong human life increasingly turn out to be futile (nothing appears to change the fact that people aren’t likely to live beyond a century and a dozen plus years), my imagination is inspired by other events which I see as true challenges. What concerns me the most is how rapid advances in IT may help humanity prevent diseases more effectively, detect them sooner and be less anxious about ageing. More specifically, one may wonder whether patients will accept “wearable” electronics and electronic armbands that will diagnose them without the direct involvement of a physician? Is it possible to use devices which, once inserted into the human body, will serve as “sensors” and detect illness symptoms? Will we ever see diagnostic systems for the early detection of e.g. Alzheimer’s?
Virtual surgeries and education
Before moving on into an even more remote future, allow me return for a moment to what is already in the past. In 2016, my attention was drawn to a curiosity of the kind that I think will soon no longer be seen as odd news and will become commonplace. I am referring to a pioneering surgery that involved virtual reality. April 14, 2016 made the history of medical practice and education. On that day, Shafi Ahmed, a cancer cell specialist, performed a surgery using 360-degree cameras that allowed him to superimpose images of medical data and healthy organs on his view of the patient. The cameras showed precisely how the doctor gradually removed pathogenic cells from the patient’s body. The students who watched the procedure on computer monitors could use special apps to actively respond to the operation or interact in real time. One can easily imagine what a valuable teaching aid this provides to today’s students allowing them to observe such procedures in class.
The above shows that virtual reality is becoming more than a fun technology. In fact, we are dealing with a whole new way of conducting professional training. This, by the way, makes me think of just how difficult it is going to be to continue believing in the value of conventional printed medicine textbooks. After all, a single online video of the kind described above is equivalent to millions of pages of texts containing medical knowledge.
Doctors — see where technology will take you
The best commentary on the above example are the words of Daniel Kraft, an oncologist, a futurologist and the author of a series of specialized training courses called Exponential Medicine offered in the Silicon Valley. In an interview for the British weekly The Guardian, Kraft said: “Today’s technologies, especially those available on a variety of devices, may radically transform health care around the world (…). We need to let doctors and nurses and patients and technologists and pharma and biotech understand where technology is and where it is going”.
Kraft is confident that today’s inventions may revolutionize medical care and patient treatment. The radical change that is afoot will have consequences that are not only medical but also economic and sociological. “Imagine, says the oncologist, that patients don’t need to come to a clinic for their next electrocardiogram. Instead they wear a smart Band-Aid “patch” that sends the same information 24/7 to their doctor’s surgery where it is immediately interpreted.” These words forebode a trend that is now commonly mentioned in projections about the future of medicine.
Your home is your hospital
Medicine of the future may transform the way doctors interact with patients and alter these two roles, which haven’t changed for years. Thanks to modern technology, patients gain mental comfort and convenience as they no longer have to make regular visits at a hospital or a doctor’s office. Their future is that of a cozy home in the presence of small devices that will allow them to monitor their bodies with great precision. As a consequence, patients will no longer depend on a relationship with a single medical specialist. Data retrieved from a handy diagnostic device can be transmitted over the Internet to many doctors, thus ensuring more credible interpretations. This will also affect the role of the doctor who, no longer preoccupied with acquiring disease data, will be free to focus on its interpretation.
Examined by an armband
The future of medicine is one of personalized easy-to-operate medical devices. The process of patients growing more independent of doctors is helped greatly by the common accessibility of smartphones. Their growing processing power and personal nature are likely to result in a proliferation of apps designed to record and process information about our health. The smartphone may well become our personal medical “hub” for acquiring, storing and sharing knowledge on our physical condition. As some people believe, during this year, the global market may see the arrival of devices that allow patients to run tests that could previously only be performed in a doctor’s office. We will see a continuous improvement of electronic armbands designed to monitor multiple vital signs such as the heart rate, body temperature, hydration level and even motoric performance. An example of such a device, available even today, is Viatom Checkme, a band designed to record a growing range of data. Its latest version tracks the pulse rate and other heart performance indicators, blood pressure, sleep quality and oxygen level.
Will personal easy-to-operate diagnostic devices soon include sensors placed on any part of the body? Work is already under way to develop sensors that process signals from various parts of the human body. For instance, a sensor placed in the mouth will examine our teeth, analyze our breath and even diagnose the performance of our jaws. All this knowledge will certainly be useful before visiting a dentist or a pulmonologist.
Robots floating in veins
What will the medical revolution look like from the perspective of a doctor looking to receive enhanced working tools? The field to watch is nanotechnology. It is said to have an enormous potential to alter today’s medicine. It also holds a huge promise for the world of science. It is by means of nanotechnology that we will be able to gather the previously unavailable information on our bodies, physiological processes and brain function.
Imagine electronic organisms inserted into our bodies and moving around freely. Such microscopic robots will be able to provide early warnings on an emergent disease. Capable of examining our organs, blood and body temperature and even photographing us from the inside, robots will gradually become a tool most valued by physicians. And what if such devices learn to communicate with one another? Will they be able to create a smart network, a link that conveys information from multiple human bodies? A computer the size of a smartphone once used to be inconceivable. Perhaps it is now to prepare for the most unthinkable scenarios.
Machines at operating tables
Let us continue to talk about robots. The robotization trend is often discussed in the context of artificial intelligence. Digital reality critics point out the drawbacks and dangers of widespread automation. Robots are increasingly commonplace in automobile and household appliance factories and may soon enter the operating rooms of modern hospitals. Robots will take over some of the complex tasks performed by doctors and directly serve patients. In California, a prototype was developed of a machine capable of making injections into the human arm. Machines are expected to carry out analytical tasks soon and diagnose people based on blood samples. The robots used in surgeries have become a common sight in many hospitals around the world. Their growing market is projected to be worth ca. US$ 6.5 billion by 2020. One increasingly popular system is the da Vinci which, fitted with 3D vision, is capable of performing surgical procedures. Further competition in the field of robot-assisted surgeries can soon be expected to come from Google which is busy developing a similar device in collaboration with Johnson&Johnson.
Tech companies take it all
Today, medical software is being deployed by such giants as IBM, Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Apple. According to The Guardian weekly, the value of the medical applications available to the average person over the Internet alone will rise to US$ 163 billion by 2020. By investing funds and intellectual potential in these fields, such corporations obviously hope to generate a hefty return in the future. Artificial intelligence, Big Data and nanotechnology are all changing today’s world. Their common feature is applicability in every area of life. It is therefore quite obvious to me that the next big step to be taken by Silicon Valley companies will be to acquire competencies in and influence medicine and the pharmaceutical industry.
Note that in some parts of the world, societies are ageing. More funds are likely to be invested in enhancing the comfort of the people who, even in their 80s, will be eager to pay dearly for a way to slow down their ageing. Changes in attitudes and aspirations to extend one’s lifespan to the maximum is certain to drive those who make decisions about advances in today’s medicine.
All things considered, I believe that the marriage of technology and medicine is not only about profit. The two are made for each other — they are a match made in heaven. Today, the ultra-powerful IBM computer Watson, which I referred to in previous articles can do more to advance medicine than an entire generation of scientists. Its technological potential for data analysis has made it the machine of choice for analyzing astronomical amounts of data on medications and diseases. Its precise outcomes will help to advance medical projects that perhaps would never see the light of day without this famous computer.