2020 demonstrated how helpless humankind could be when facing an epidemic. It is clear now that healthcare systems in many countries need to be transformed. And this transformation is impossible without leading-edge technology as the challenges are enormous. Like many other spheres, healthcare is undergoing a digital revolution. Data Science, Machine Learning, and Artificial Intelligence will be dominating the healthcare software development sphere in the decades to come. They will help create unprecedented products and systems that will save and improve the lives of people globally: software for hospitals, such as digital workplaces for healthcare professionals, drug prescription assistance, medical staff training, coordinating care and health information exchange; for patients - healthcare chatbots, virtual medicine apps; for device manufactures - medical apps for users, cloud solutions for data storage and management; for pharmaceutical companies - systems for drug testing and medication guidance, etc. Overall, healthcare technology pursues the following ambitious goals:
- Building sustainable healthcare systems
- Improvement of patient-doctor interactions
- Prevention of epidemics
- Making a breakthrough in curing cancer, AIDS, and other diseases
- Increase in life expectancy and quality
Let's have a closer look at technology trends in the medical industry, which promise a healthier future for us all, with some looking truly mind-blowing even in the hi-tech age.
Healthcare technology - industry trends and solutions
1. Telemedicine and personal medical devices
The Covid-19 pandemic created a pressing need to reduce contact between patients and healthcare workers and caused an upsurge in telehealth services' popularity. Smart wearables are a crucial component for telemedicine as they enable access to real-time patient data, such as blood pressure and oxygen saturation, heart rate, etc., for physicians. Several companies are working to create a multifunctional device that will measure all key vital parameters. The doctor can conduct an exam remotely, track changes in the patient's condition, and adjust the treatment. One of them is MedWand, which offers cloud-based systems for smooth virtual healthcare sessions.
The new generation of telemedicine software will ensure a remarkably high security level for electronic health records thanks to Blockchain and cloud data storage. WebRTC is among the key technologies that underpin the success of telehealth apps. Google's open-source project enables API-based real-time interaction between mobile apps and web browsers with different data types, such as audio and video. App integration with smartphone health trackers, like Apple HealthKit, is also a must. Smartphones will turn into a min-lab, equipped with microscopes and sensors to analyze swab samples and detect abnormalities.
Despite fraud concerns, telemedicine popularity is forecasted to grow after the pandemic ends as virtual appointments are less stressful and time-consuming than conventional hospital visits. From the healthcare practitioner's perspective, they allow providing service to more patients daily.
2. Artificial Intelligence
Artificial Intelligence is omnipresent and disrupts medicine like many other domains. Here are just a few medical objectives that can be reached with the help of AI:
- Development of personalized treatment plans with AI-driven analytics
- Accelerated design of new effective drugs. (e.g., Machine Learning enabled the development of the Covid-19 vaccine by identifying viral components responsive to the immune system.)
- Considerable improvement of early diagnostics, automated image classification, and description (e.g., Google's DeepMind created an AI for more accurate detection of breast cancer)
- Collection, processing, and storage of medical records.
- Automation of monotonous jobs and eliminating paperwork for the hospital staff.
- Epidemic prevention and control (e.g., analysis of thermal screening, facial recognition of masked people)
3. Virtual and augmented reality
Virtual and Augmented Reality tools are in wide use for educational and entertainment purposes across numerous industries. In medicine, the range of applications includes simulations for health professionals training, planning complex surgeries, diagnostics, anxiety and pain therapy, and rehabilitation (for instance, dealing with motor deficiencies, memory loss). Companies like ImmersiveTouch and Osso VR provide virtual platforms for surgeons and hospital staff. Interestingly, VR headsets have proven effective for alleviating pain through sound and color therapy. Augmented Reality screens help surgeons make better decisions during emergencies. AR also streamlines robotic surgeries.Source: Grand View Research
Nanomedicine is only emerging and will probably have a slow adoption by patients. Although having invisible robots performing surgery or delivering medicine to the exact organs or cells is not for the weak-hearted, there is a vast range of no-daunting applications. Miniature devices like PillCam serve non-invasive diagnostics purposes. Another direction for nanotechnology is smart patches with biosensors. The Medical Futurist Journal features a fascinating overview of the latest products and solutions presented at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in 2020. Among the wow gadgets, there is a patch for continuous wound monitoring from a French company Grapheal . In October 2021, NanoMedicine International Conference and Exhibition will take place in Milan, Italy. The list of themes for discussion shows the immense potential of nanotechnology.
Robotics is booming and has a wide range of healthcare applications. Exoskeletons with wireless brain-machine interface, robotic limbs, surgical robots, robotic assistants, and companions for disabled people - the future has come! Importantly, disinfectant and sanitary robots may play an essential role in preventing epidemics as they cannot contract a virus while taking care of infected patients. There is only one downside - robotic medicine is expensive. For instance, the famous da Vinci Surgical System costs over 1million US dollars
6. 3D printing
Now virtually anything can be printed - human tissues and organs, models and prosthetics, medical devices and pills. This field requires highly sophisticated software solutions for processing medical images, segmentation, mesh editing, and 3 D modeling.
7. In silico medicine trials
The creation of virtual organs (organs-on-a-chip) for simulated clinical trials is taking off. Computer mathematical models of human anatomy and physiology will allow testing new drugs on thousands of virtual patients in very short timeframes. The ethical aspect is also essential - this futuristic technology will help decrease or eliminate tests conducted on animals and human volunteers.
With all the amazing medical technology trends in mind, we can expect many breakthroughs in the upcoming decades. However, what already exists is not available or affordable for the developing countries' population, who are often deprived even of basic healthcare. Therefore, like in education and finance, accessibility is among the main challenges technology faces today.