The last decade has seen an explosion in the integrated use of technology in healthcare. Every year, more and more technological devices become available to medical professionals; helping to optimise workflows, improve patient care, and drive innovation in diagnosis and treatment.
The medical profession has long benefited from technology. But with the advent of the Fourth Industrial revolution, clinical research has never moved at such a rapid pace. From artificial intelligence (AI) robotics to big data-based machine learning, medtech solutions continue to push the envelope of medical achievement.
The impact of precision medicine
If there’s one thing that the recent technological explosion in healthcare has taught us, it’s that the traditional one-size-fits-all approach to patient care is becoming increasingly redundant. An alternative approach centred on individual patients and their specific needs has thus emerged.
Precision medicine (also known as personalised medicine) is an approach to patient care that gives medical professionals the ability to select tailored treatments for individual patients based on their genes, lifestyle and environment.
While some GPs have raised valid concerns about the potential privacy and discrimination risks related to the implementation of precision medicine, NHS England’s 10-year plan outlines a commitment to the gradual adoption of personalised healthcare.
The potential for further research and development (R&D) around precision medicine is huge, especially as precision medicine has been acknowledged as one of the key drivers of the UK’s £70bn life sciences sector. Globally, the precision medicine market is predicted to be worth $87bn by 2023.
Perhaps the most visible area of precision medicine, however, is the increasingly widespread deployment of technology to gather patient data, assist medicines adherence and bolster patient-doctor communication.
Here are some disruptive medical device technologies that have the potential to transform traditional healthcare.
1) Wearable Health Devices (WHDs)
From Fitbit, a fitness device that tracks weight and body fat percentage, to the Heartsense monitor, an AI-driven wearable that can track heart rhythm and respiratory problems in real-time, the proliferation of Wearable Health Devices (WHDs) is one of the most visible disruptions to healthcare in recent years.
Aside from being highly personalised, the advantages to WHDs are manifold. They enable GPs to detect symptoms more quickly, aiding early diagnosis. GPs can also monitor their patients remotely, which reduces the need for face-to-face consultations and saves time and money in the process. Finally, by giving patients and their GPs the ability to track any noticeable changes to key bodily functions, WHDs give GPs the ability to use real data to optimise treatment.
As the technology of wearables improves and enables health professionals to receive increasingly accurate and granular patient data, we can expect to see the use of such devices growin mainstream healthcare. According to data from Juniper Research, the healthcare wearables sector will be worth $60 billion by 2023.
2) Smart inhalers
In the UK, 5.4 million people – just over 8% of the population – are currently receiving treatment for asthma. And with the number of deaths from asthma increasing, the need for improved asthma treatment and education on the condition is urgent.
Though not yet available on the NHS, smart inhalers have the potential to improve the outlook. With extra digital features that link to an app, these devices give patients the ability to manage their condition 24 hours a day. Importantly, the information gathered by the smart inhaler can also be used to prove to GPs or asthma nurses that patients are taking their inhalers correctly.
Some smart inhalers have sensors which notify the patient if they’re in high pollution or high pollen area – helping them to decide whether or not to avoid it. Others remind patients when to use their inhaler, while some can even advise patients to check their inhaler technique.
While smart inhalers are still being tested in clinical trials, their future use has been recommended as part of the NHS Long Term Plan.
3) Wireless brain sensors
Thanks to rapid technological advances in brain-computer interfaces, brain sensors are now remotely accessible through wireless connectivity.
These devices are able to monitor intracranial pressure and temperature inside the skulls of patients with severe traumatic brain injuries, as well as those living with nervous system disorders such as Parkinson’s Disease (PD). By giving people the ability to control the devices with their thoughts, brain-sensing technology enables those with severe paralysis to perform daily functions.
CRISPR-Cas9 (short for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats and CRISPR-associated protein 9) is a gene-editing technology that has created a palpable buzz among the scientific community. By giving researchers the ability to edit multiple genes at once, the system provides greater speed, cost-effectiveness, accuracy and efficiency than other existing gene-editing methods.
Thus far, scientists have limited its use to animals, reducing the severity of genetic deafness in mice and editing bone marrow cells in mice to treat sickle cell anaemia. Scientists have even created modified mushrooms that don’t go brown when sliced. Though still very much in the discovery phase, it’s thought that CRISPR-Cas9 could one day allow us to wipe out entire populations of malaria-spreading mosquitoes or resurrect extinct species like the woolly mammoth.
Though the approach has been applied to fields as diverse as agriculture and human health, gene editing doesn’t come without risks – which is why scientists are hesitant to test the CRISPR-Cas9 technique on humans.
According to the World Health Organisation, telehealth “involves the use of telecommunications and virtual technology to deliver health care outside of traditional health-care facilities.” This can include virtual home healthcare, in which chronically ill or elderly patient receive long-distance guidance in certain procedures while remaining at home.
Like WHDs, telehealth technologies are another form of remote patient monitoring (RPM) – helping to improve medication adherence and save the costs associated with unnecessary appointments. In the UK, the remote consultation app Babylon Health has been the most prominent example of telehealth disruption, though its impact on the NHS has not been without controversy.
As healthcare becomes more integrated with technology, the use of personalised telehealth will become more common. While many in healthcare harbour legitimate fears that remote consultations will remove the personal touch from healthcare, telehealth is likely to be employed as a supplement to traditional, face-to-face consultations.
6) Virtual reality
Most conversations around virtual reality (VR) focus on its application in fields such as education, entertainment and even military strategy. However, the deployment of VR technology in healthcare is becoming increasingly prominent.
VR headsets, for example, can help with pain management, mental health treatment and rehabilitation. The virtual worlds opened up by such technology give patients somewhere to escape to and can provide a distraction from physical pain or negative thought patterns.
Far from being limited to escapism, VR can give GPs tangible statistical insights because it measures patient interactions within a specifically designed environment. And with its ability to transport the viewer into the human body, VR can even be used to provide immersive, 360° training to medical students.
The technology is certainly here to stay: according to predictions, the global augmented virtual reality market in healthcare will be worth an estimated $5.1 billion by 2025.
7) 3D printing
Also known as additive manufacturing, 3D printing describes the process by which material is joined or solidified to create precise three-dimensional replicas of digital models. Though the technology is not usually associated with healthcare, its application in hospitals is poised to becoming increasingly widespread.
Aside from being cost-effective in the long run, 3D printing technology is highly practical. The process allows doctors to create three-dimensional models of a patient's anatomy which can then be used in diagnosis or surgical planning. These insights enable the creation of custom-made orthopaedic implants and accessories, prosthetics, hearing aids, dental implants, and wearables (such as biosensors), as well as in-demand surgical tools.
In the near future, doctors will be able to print out artificial skin cells to help heal burn wounds. There are even suggestions that surgeons will be able to bioprint replacement organs – which has the potential to render risky transplants obsolete. Quite simply, this remarkable technology has the ability to transform healthcare as we know it.