As there are so many amazing things going on worldwide in medicine and healthcare, a shortlist of some of the greatest ideas and developments would give us a glimpse into the future of medicine. It is always a challenge to detect the projects with the biggest potential to be used in everyday medical practices, but here are the most promising candidates for fulfilling this notion.
Here are the first 10 of the top 20 future medical technologies.
1) Augmented reality
The digital contact lens patented by Google aims to change the course of diabetes management by measuring blood glucose levels from tears. While the prototype is going through vigorous testing, regulations must prepare to quickly allow this disruptive technology to enter the market and benefit patients. Microsoft Hololens can also change medical education and how we look at the world by projecting digital information onto what we are seeing. A clinic in Germany started experimenting with an application using augmented reality on iPads in the OR. During operations, surgeons can see through anatomical structures such as blood vessels in the liver without opening organs therefore they can perform more precise excisions.
2) Google Brain
Ian Pearson wrote in his book, You Tomorrow, about the possibility that one day we will be able to create digital selves based on neurological information. It means we could upload our minds to a computer and live on in a digital form. As Google hired Ray Kurzweil to create the ultimate artificial intelligence controlled brain, this opportunity should not be so far away. We might have been looking for the secret of immortality in the wrong places.
3) Recreational cyborgs
There are already famous examples of real-life cyborgs, and I am truly convinced that such creatures will not only populate the terrain of sci-fi movies, but they will be everywhere around us in the very near future. The ‘cyborg-craze’ will eventually start with a new generation of hipsters who implant devices and technologies in their bodies just to look cooler. Advances in future medical technology will not just repair physical disadvantages such as impaired eyesight but will create superhuman powers from having the eyesight of an eagle to having the hearing of a bat. While a patient wearing implanted defibrillators or pacemakers can also be added to the group of cyborgs, I expect to see more cases when patients ask for the implantation of a certain device without having medical problems.
4) Medical 3D printing
If guns and other objects can be printed now and the biotechnology industry is working on printing even living cells; why would the appearance of 3D printed drugs be surprising? It will destroy and re-design the whole pharmaceutical world, but regulation will be a huge challenge as anyone will be able to print any kind of drugs that contain patented molecules at home. Bionic ears and simpler organs will be printed at the patient’s bedside.
There are already examples of 3D printing used in medicine. Through the e-NABLING the Future project, a global network of passionate volunteers enable volunteers, doctors or anyone on the field to make a difference by literally “giving a helping hand” to those in need by sharing 3D Printing designs, video tutorials and other information about building prosthetic hands. Success stories come from all over the world: there are now children and adults with super-hero style or more traditionally shaped prosthetic hands in Chile, Ghana, Indonesia and many more countries.
5) Gamifying behavior change
Adherence and compliance represent crucial issues in improving patients’ health and decreasing the cost of delivering healthcare. Several start-ups have targeted this issue with different solutions such as a pill bottle that glows blue when a medication dose should be taken and red when a dose is missed (winner of the Healthcare Innovation World Cup); or tiny digestible sensors that can be placed in pills and can transmit pill digestion data to physicians and family members. While patients do not like the term adherence as they want to be partners with their caregivers rather than following orders, health insurance companies will use more and more data to check whether the patients comply with their prescriptions to decrease their insurance costs. The wildly popular Pokemon Go motivates people to walk more which might lead to fighting obesity while playing a game.
6) New diseases
Regarding technological development, there is always a risk for the emergence of so far unknown illnesses and conditions. New types of diseases will appear due to the excessive use of virtual reality solutions in gaming and other industries including healthcare. Examples include virtual post-traumatic stress disorder (v-PTSD) which might be the diagnosis for gamers who participate in large virtual battles wearing VR masks (such as Call of Duty of Battlefield) and experience similar symptoms as those soldiers who fought in real wars. Virtual reality as an extension of online activity and particularly that of gaming might also cause addiction. Expect to see ICD codes assigned to such new conditions.
7) Real-time diagnostics
The intelligent surgical knife (iKnife) was developed by Zoltan Takats of Imperial College London and works by using an old technology where an electrical current heats tissue to make incisions with minimal blood loss. With the iKnife, the vaporized smoke is analyzed by a mass spectrometer to detect the chemicals in the biological sample. This means it can identify whether the tissue is malignant real-time. Surgeons will love this surgical Jedi knife which can significantly reduce the length of operations.
8) Holographic data input
While better and better data input solutions arise, we will probably not even need hardware to add data to a laptop or PC as screens and keyboards will be projected on the wall or on the table making it simple and accessible everywhere in the clinical settings. Holographic and virtual keyboards will make us forget about smartphones and tablets. Only small projectors will be needed, while the data will be stored exclusively in the cloud.
9) Crowdsourcing through social media
Medical communication is something that affects all patients and medical professionals worldwide without exceptions. This is one reason why social media has the potential to become a huge “mind machine” making it possible to transmit, share, crowdsource and store medical pieces of information either for e-patients or medical professionals if such social platforms are used in a proper way. Don’t underestimate the power of digital/medical communication.
10) Multi-functional radiology
Radiology is one of the fastest growing and developing areas of medicine, therefore this might be the specialty in which we can expect to see the biggest steps in developments. One multi-functional machine will be able to detect plenty of medical problems, biomarkers and symptoms at once. Naturally, artists and movies are already way ahead of us: check out the machine used in the film, Elysium. With one quick check-up it tells you what percentage of your cells are cancer free.
11) In silico clinical trials
Switching from long and extremely expensive clinical trials to tiny microchips which can be used as models of human cells, organs or whole physiological systems provides clear advantages. Drugs or components could be tested on these without limitations which would make clinical trials faster and even more accurate (in each case the conditions and circumstances would be the same). The Organs-on-Chips technology is able to use stem cells to mimic organs of the body with a series of devices. Many experts believe that this technology could revolutionize clinical trials and replace animal testing completely. It could also improve cancer care.
12) Reformed medical education
For the first time in the history of medicine, on 14 April 2016 Shafi Ahmed cancer surgeon performed an operation using a virtual reality camera at the Royal London hospital. Everyone could participate in the operation in real time through the Medical Realities website and the VR in OR app. No matter whether a promising medical student from Cape Town, an interested journalist from Seattle or a worried relative, everyone could follow through two 360 degree cameras how the surgeon removed a cancerous tissue from the bowel of the patient. Such possibilities will revolutionize the way medicine is taught.
Medical students will study anatomy on virtual dissection tables and not on human cadavers. What we used to learn from huge textbooks will be transformed into virtual 3D solutions and models using augmented reality. We can observe, change and create anatomical models as fast as we want, as well as analyze structures in every detail. Examples include Anatomage anatomy visualization system enabling virtual dissection, ImageVis3D, a simple and interactive software for visualization and 4DAnatomy, a cloud based, interactive, dissection-simulation resource.
It is a biological technique, which involves the use of light to control cells in living tissue, typically neurons that have been genetically modified to express light-sensitive ion channels. It is widely speculated that optogenetics might provide new solutions in therapies. A recent study published in Science reported that scientists were able to create false memories in the hippocampus of mice. This is the first time the memory of fear was generated via artificial means. When we understand the placebo effect clearly; just imagine the outcomes we can reach when false memories of taking drugs can be generated in humans as well. The idea is a bit futuristic, but the basics of the method are almost available now.
14) Robot assistants
With the rapid development of the industry, robots gradually emerge from the sci-fi movies and enter the world of healthcare. With the growing number of elderly patients, introducing robot assistants to care homes and hospitals is inevitable. It could be a fair solution from moving patients to performing basic procedures.
The TUG robot is a robust device, able to carry around a multitude of racks, carts or bins up to 453 kilograms that contain medications, laboratory specimens or other sensitive materials. Riba or Robot for Interactive Body Assistance is somewhat similar to the TUG robot, however it is rather used at homes with care patients who need assistance. Its Japanese version, the Robear is shaped as a giant, gentle bear with a cartoonish head. They both can lift and move patients in and out of bed into a wheelchair, help patients to stand, and to turn them to prevent bed sores as many times as you want.
The robot in the picture below is the prototype made by a company based in California that aims at combining robotics and image-analysis technology so then it can find a good vein in your arm and also draw your blood. In the next step, it will also perform analysis on the blood from detecting biomarkers to obtaining genetic data.
15) Wearables and beyond
Now we wear a FitBit and other devices that measure easily quantifiable data, but the future belongs to digestible and wearable sensors that can work like a thin e-skin. Biometric tattoos such as VivaLNK’s eSkin Tattoo can transmit medical information discreetly. RFID or Radio Frequency Identification chips can be implanted under the skin and serve as an identification device.
These sensors will measure all important health parameters and vital signs from temperature, and blood biomarkers to neurological symptoms 24 hours a day transmitting data to the cloud and sending alerts to medical systems when a stroke is happening real time. It will call the ambulance itself and sends all the related data immediately.
16) Real-time data
It is not just about checking and monitoring vital signs but intervention is also the key to a better health. Imagine tooth-embedded sensors that can recognize jaw movements, coughing, speaking and even smoking so it records when you eat too much or smoke no matter what the doctor told you. It’s going to be extremely hard not to follow the doctor’s pieces of advice. Imagine the same wireless technology used in organs providing real-time data.
17) Medical tricorders
If wearing thin e-skins or having embedded sensors is not a viable option for us, then let’s make an old dream come true. The concept of the tricorder from Star Trek has been there for decades and we still don’t have it. The Qualcomm Tricorder X Prize challenge will hopefully lead to the development of a device that can diagnose any diseases and give individuals more choices in their own health.
Such devices as Scanadu, which is an early stage mobile medical device to empower patients, or Viatom Checkme, which not only measures your body temperature, but also traces ECG, measures pulse rate and rhythm, oxygen saturation, systolic blood pressure, physical activity and sleep, completely transform the notion of healthcare. Instead of constantly waiting for the verdict of medical professionals, patients will control their own health.
18) Artificial intelligence
I’ve always been a fan of IBM Watson and seen its potentials as huge opportunities in medicine. Watson will assist physicians in everyday medical decision-making, although it will not substitute humans at all. While a physician can follow a few papers, maybe a few dozens of papers with digital solutions, Watson has the capacity to read 40 million documents in 15 seconds and to suggest the most fitting therapies. Atomwise aims to reduce the costs of medicine development by using supercomputers to predict, in advance, which potential medicines will work, and which won’t. Google Deepmind Health is used to mine the data of medical records in order to provide better and faster health services. The project is in its initial phase, and at present they found a partner in the British hospital Moorfields Eye Hospital NHS Foundation Trust to improve eye treatment.
Since the completion of the Human Genome Project, which aimed at the complete mapping and understanding of all the genes of human beings, we have been envisioning the era of personalized medicine in which everyone gets customized therapy with customized dosages. The truth is that there are hundreds of evidence-based applications for personal genomics, according to the Personalized Medicine Coalition. As we move along this path, we will have more and more opportunities for using DNA analysis at the patient’s bedside which should be a must have before actually prescribing drugs.
There are already signs pointing into this direction. With the method of rapid genetic sequencing, geneticist Stephen Kingsmore and his team saved the life of a small baby boy as early as 2013. I believe that genomics and genetics is an amazing medical tool to prevent and cure diseases, when it is used wisely and carefully.
20) Patient empowerment
I thought I would put the simplest and most predictable medical advance to the bottom of this list. In the near future, whether it is the right and reliable medical information, dynamic resources or medical records; everything will simply be available to everyone which might not sound that interesting, but this would purely be the most important development in the history of medicine. Patients will finally lead healthcare.
It would be great if you could share your insights about other technological advances in the comment section after the post. I hope you enjoyed these two journeys into the future of medicine.