As of this year, it is estimated that overall medical knowledge doubles every seventy-three days. This astounding rate of growth enables doctors to perform treatments that would have been impossible a few years or even months ago. And while staggering progress is being made in the fields of pharmaceutical development and surgical treatment, some of the most astounding changes are happening in healthcare technology.
The future of healthcare technology is filled with breathtaking miracles. Doctors can craft new limbs for patients who have had amputations and help people who have had major strokes back onto their feet just days after the incident. Below are some of the amazing developments we can expect to see making their way into hospitals and doctors’ offices over the next few years.
One of the more amazing and futuristic technologies making its debut in healthcare is the bionic prosthetic. Losing even part of a limb impacts your ability to perform everyday tasks ranging from personal hygiene and household tasks to working and interacting socially. And in the past, prostheses have relied on movements in other parts of your body to move the prosthetic (such as shrugging your shoulder to close a prosthetic hand).
Bionic prosthetics, however, operate based on electrical signals in your remaining muscles. If you want to close a bionic prosthetic hand, you contract the remaining muscles in your arm. Electrical sensors placed on your arm pick up the signal your brain sends to those muscles and close the prosthetic hand.
But more than providing more natural movement, bionic prosthetics are actually returning sensation to these new limbs. Sensors in the prosthetic detect when the hand is moving or when it’s touching something. Then small robots worn on the existing limb use either controlled vibrations or pressure on certain nerve points in the skin to create the sensation of the limb moving.
Since the 1980s, doctors have been fascinated with the idea of folding DNA in new ways. DNA is a long molecule in the body that we understand fairly well, given our efforts to sequence the entire human genome. These two properties make it possible for us to affix certain binders onto DNA molecules that cause them to self-fold in predetermined patterns.
DNA origami effectively allows doctors to manipulate the language of the body. The folded DNA changes the way certain proteins in the body are processed (or not processed, in some cases). This change can alter how certain processes happen and even stop certain processes from occurring altogether.
The practical applications of DNA origami are still very much in preliminary stages, but the potential of this technology is staggering. Future cancer treatment may involve injecting a patient with DNA which then folds itself into nanobots and goes off to shut down the growth sequences of cancerous cells. That kind of treatment is still very far off, but DNA origami makes that treatment a possibility that can be explored.
For people with diabetes, needle sticks are a daily fact of life. These patients need to check their glucose levels several times a day and so must draw blood to check those levels. But in a few years, monitoring those glucose levels may be as simple as scanning a contact lens.
One alternative to blood testing is to monitor glucose levels through patients’ tears. The patient would wear a contact lens fitted with small, flexible, transparent electronics. A glucose sensor checks the sugar levels in the patients’ tears and transmits that data through a small built-in antenna.
While this technology has very promising possibilities for diabetic patients, its development has currently been put on hold. There are a number of challenges to overcome, including the lower glucose levels in the tears than in the blood, the issue of rapid tear evaporation, and other substances in the eye interfering with readings. However, once these issues are resolved, checking glucose levels in diabetic patients may happen in the blink of an eye.
You won’t be surprised to learn that artificial intelligence is at the forefront of healthcare technology developments. AI can be used to track things like how a disease is spreading (say, during a global pandemic). It can also track longer-term healthcare trends and potentially link certain lifestyle behaviors to various medical conditions.
But AI is doing more than tracking how diagnosed diseases may be spreading and why. It’s actually beginning to help provide diagnoses in the first place. A physician can feed a list of symptoms to an AI, and that tool can then generate a number of possible diagnoses, making the diagnostic process quicker and potentially more accurate.
AI is also being employed to help read radiologic tests. This work is preliminary and is still overseen by trained, certified radiologists. But in many ways, a computer’s “eyes” are much more sensitive than ours and may be able to pick up even slight variations in readings, potentially improving diagnoses and patient treatment plans.
Big data also has a big role to play in the future of healthcare. Today, computers are harvesting data about almost every aspect of our life all the time. Programs look at what we buy, where we go, where we work, what we make, and how we communicate.
Because of this abundance of data, doctors can start to make never-before-understood connections between our health and our behaviors. Ever-improving data management tools make it possible for scientists to ask questions that no one’s thought to ask before – and receive answers in a matter of hours. This new insight into our health has the potential to revolutionize how we understand our health on a day-to-day basis.
Big data can also be helpful in improving patient treatment. It is estimated that prescription errors affect more than 7 million people in the United States every year, and about 7,000 people die because of these errors. Big data can help pharmacists find the trends that signal these errors are about to happen so they can prevent problems before they occur.
Virtual reality is also starting to make its way onto the medical scene. This technology that allows you to step into a visually interactive world has already been adopted by everyone from video gamers to real estate agents. Now, it may help surgeons to better perform tricky operations and improve patient outcomes.
Before a risky operation, a surgeon can create a detailed three-dimensional scan of a patient’s body. This can be imported into a virtual reality program, where the surgeon can practice their techniques. They can perform the surgery a dozen times to get every movement perfect before they ever put a scalpel to a patient.
Virtual reality can also be educational for patients as well as doctors. It may be difficult for a patient to understand what’s happening inside their body that’s causing a problem or what will happen to them during a medical procedure. With VR, a doctor can walk a patient through a tour of their own body, explaining what’s happening and improving both patient comfort and compliance.
Wearable fitness trackers have become a routine part of our everyday lives. FitBits and smartwatches let us know if we’re getting enough activity or drinking enough water. They help us to monitor our cardiac health, manage our weight, and track patterns in our own lives and wellbeing.
But wearable trackers are also making it easier for doctors to run tests and follow up with patients during and after treatment. Rather than having to stay in the hospital to have a cardiac study performed, you can simply wear a sticker on your chest for a few weeks. Likewise, patients who are in danger of catastrophic health events after certain risky treatments can wear a monitor that will alert emergency services if their heart rate or blood pressure rise or fall dangerously or if they develop a sudden high fever.
One of the more exciting wearable devices on the healthcare scene is a blood pressure monitor. You wear a small patch on your neck and it uses ultrasound waves that can monitor the pressure in your major arteries and veins even an inch below the skin. Not only is this non-invasive, it can provide a more accurate blood pressure reading because it has access to those central blood supply lines.
Some of the most delicate patients healthcare providers have to treat are premature babies. These preemies can be as small as a pound and may have missed out on weeks or even months of development in the womb. Trying to keep them healthy and nurture them to a stage where they can safely go home is an incredibly difficult and demanding process for the healthcare team, the parents, and the baby.
But music therapy has the potential to make this process easier for everyone involved. One study has shown that music therapy can improve a preemie’s breathing, heart rate, sleep, and feeding, as well as reducing stress on the parents. Music therapy may even be able to reduce the number of days a baby has to spend in the NICU before they can go home.
Music therapy is performed by specially trained professionals who play instruments live in the unit. By matching their playing rhythm to a preemie’s heart rate, music therapists can mimic the sounds of the mother’s heartbeat and the amniotic fluid in the womb and guide that heart rate back into healthy ranges. This approach can also improve continuity of care since music therapists can work with parents to develop songs they sing to their babies to calm them once they go home.
Pancreatic cancer is one of the most deadly forms of the disease to get. There are almost no telltale signs or symptoms until it’s too late, and the disease has a five-year survival rate of just 7 percent. But a new app and some clever machine learning can help catch pancreatic cancers while they’re still small enough to treat.
BiliScreen uses a simple selfie taken with a smartphone camera to check the whites of your eyes for signs of pancreatic cancer. One of the early signs of pancreatic cancer is a slight yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes known as jaundice. This change may be too slight for the human eye to detect, but this app may be able to detect even slight changes, letting you know that you should go get screened for pancreatic cancer right away.
Although prostate cancer has a better survival rate than pancreatic cancer, the treatment can have a significant impact on patients’ sexual function if the disease progresses too far. But a new blood test may help to detect the presence of aggressive prostate cancer much earlier. Not only will this save patient lives, it can also help them keep sexual function after treatment.
After someone has suffered a stroke or an accident, it’s important to get them moving again as soon as possible. The quicker they can start moving affected limbs again, the more function they can hope to restore in the long term. But these patients may be too weak or injured to move these limbs on their own so soon after their injury.
Robotic therapy tools can help patients start to move these limbs sooner. The robot can provide support to allow the patient to use the strength they do have to start moving the affected limbs. As the patient gets stronger, the robot can withdraw support slowly until the patient is able to stand on their own two feet again.
These days, doctors in labs and hospitals around the world are performing nothing short of miracles. They can manipulate DNA to shut down certain unwanted processes in the body, track cancer growth and blood sugar changes in the blink of an eye, and slow preemies’ heart rates by playing a lullaby. As medical knowledge continues to progress, it’s hard to say what new wonders we will see develop in the future of healthcare technology.