Technology has many beneficial effects on modern people’s lives, and one of them is to prolong our lifespan through advancing the medical field. In the past few years, new techniques such as artificial intelligence, robots, wearable tech, and so on have been used to improve the quality of our healthcare system, and some even newer innovations such as flying vehicles and brain computer interface are also considered valuable to the field. In this article, we will first give a thorough discussion about how these new technologies will shape our future healthcare, and then some upcoming problems that we may soon face will be addressed.
The technologies in future healthcare
Interestingly, many innovations expected to play an important role in future healthcare are not designed specifically for medical purposes. Instead, they are general techniques that can be applied to multiple areas. These innovations include artificial intelligence, chatbots, self-driving vehicles, robots, wearable tech, Internet of things, 5G, blockchain, extended reality, drones, 3D printing, brain computer interface and so forth. Let’s now check out their merits in medical field respectively.
Artificial Intelligence (AI):
As a term referring to a broad range of techniques, AI can assist medicine in many fashions. For starters, AI has been reported to perform equally good, or even better, than human experts in diagnosing certain diseases such as breast cancer. There is also report suggesting that a well-trained AI can help doctors to better interpret chest X-rays, as demonstrated in this research done by Google Health.
Also, since AI possesses great power in predicting upcoming events, it can be utilized to predict the outbreak of an epidemic. In fact, as early as December 30, 2019, a Canadian AI-powered platform known as BlueDot detected and flagged cluster of “unusual pneumonia” (later known as COVID-19) around a market in Wuhan, China, and that is nine day before World Health Organization (WHO) released its statement about the disease.
Designing new medicine is another field that AI has contributed to (the field is called Computer-Aided Drug Design or CADD). In January 30, 2020, the UK startup Exscientia and the Japanese pharmaceutical company Sumitomo Dainippon Pharma announced that they have developed a molecule known as DSP-1181 that can potentially treat people with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and it became the first AI medicine entering human clinical trials. According to Exscientia, the process for developing such molecule typically takes circa 4.5 years. With AI, however, they can shorten the process to less than 12 months.
Artificial intelligence can make healthcare services more accessible as well. In Taiwan, several clinics have used LINE chatbot (e.g., Dent&Co牙醫小幫手) with basic natural language processing (NLP) abilities to help patients making and checking their appointments or obtaining useful medical information. It’s easily foreseeable that with further development, chatbot equipped with exquisite NLP can be turned into one’s personal health assistant, which is capable of recording and analyzing the user’s health conditions automatically, providing health consultation 24/7, debunking incorrect health-related information, and so on.
Perfectly developed self-driving cars can also add value to our medical system. For example, the automobile can continuously monitor the state of its driver. Once a certain condition (e.g., heart attack) strikes so that the driver can no longer take control, the vehicle can drive itself to the nearest hospital through the optimal route automatically and notice the emergency room beforehand.
Last but not least, although still premature for now, AI is expected to be able to write code by itself in the future (for an example of current development, see this article about SketchAdapt), and this can help hospitals by keeping the software used on medical devices up to date. The danger of using old software is that the software may only run on out-of-date operating systems which contain serious security holes, and this will make these computers extremely vulnerable to the attacks of hackers and ransomware (note that if it happens, the consequences can be fatal).
As we know, data are essential for today AI to work, and what is better than wearable devices in collecting continuous or real-time health data? Seeing the potential, Apple Watch Series 4 announced in 2018 has included an electrocardiogram (ECG) feature in it, which allows one to record his or her own heart rhythm. The US firm Fitbit also makes wearable devices that enable users to keep track data such as temperature, heart rate, breathing patterns and so forth during sleep.
It’s possible that more sensors or accessories capable of collecting more accurate and complicated data will be developed and equipped on wearable devices such as a smartwatch in the future, and such sensors or accessories will eventually allow diagnosis to be performed outside a medical institution (which goes along with the trend that medical services move from hospitals to random places such as one’s home, offices and schools).
Internet of Things (IoT):
As previously mentioned, healthcare should not happen only in a hospital. On the contrary, the best healthcare strategies should be associated with our daily life, and they are capable of preventing you from even going near an infirmary.
With IoT, we can build a highly automatic and preventive healthcare system since the furniture and devices around you can share your health data in real time and take actions accordingly to help keeping you healthy (e.g., smart refrigerator may be able to recommend recipe for your breakfast based on your health data in the morning). It can also let your doctor to better understand and manage your conditions if you grant them access to your health records, making them easier to spot abnormal sign and more likely to intervene in an early stage.
One of the direct examples of IoT application in healthcare is the smart inhaler sensor made by the European firm FindAir. This sensor designed for people with asthma can be attached on a regular inhaler, turning it into an IoT device capable of connecting to a smartphone through FindAir app. According to the official website, the sensor and application can not only help monitoring the user's symptoms but also tell the user what trigger his or her asthma.
As more and more tools being released to provide healthcare outside medical institutions (this is also known as decentralization in healthcare), it’s only logical that telemedicine (i.e., physicians provide medical services to their patients remotely with the help of information and telecommunication technologies) will become more and more prevalent with time passing. And to make such remote healthcare, which requires rapid and long-distance data transmission, to work smoothly, 5G technology that promises wider bandwidth, higher data rate, and lower latency will be a huge advantageous factor.
Although blockchain is tightly bound with cryptocurrency nowadays, the technique itself is actually an effective way to resist unauthorized modification of the data that is not necessarily related to finance while at the same time keeping the data’s openness. Blockchain utilizes multiple mechanisms to secure the data stored within the structure called “blocks”, which include the use of hash, public-key cryptography, peer-to-peer network (aka P2P network) and decentralization, etc. To see how these mechanisms work exactly, please refer to the following video.
The biggest value that blockchain can provide to our healthcare system is to ensure the secureness and authenticity of the medical data. For instant, with the help of blockchain, people can safely share their health records (produced in a hospital or by their wearable devices) to their doctor(s) without worrying too much about their information being stolen. As a matter of fact, such use of blockchain has already existed in the market. Medicalchain created by Dr. Abdullah Albeyatti and Mo Tayeb, for example, is one of the platforms that provides the service (you can learn more by reading the whitepaper they released).
Beside health record management, blockchain is also used to fight drug counterfeiting problem, and the Information Collaboration Hub for Life Sciences created by the German firm SAP is one of such instances.
Note that although blockchain seems powerful, one should keep in mind that it’s not completely immune to hacking, and therefore people should not put too much confidence in the technology.
Robots are famous for being fast, accurate and tireless, and these features make them extremely useful in surgical procedures. According to a report on surgical robot market made by Fortune Business Insights, the market size of surgical robot in 2018 was USD 1,463 million, and it’s expected to exceed USD 6,000 million in 2026. One of the most famous surgical robot systems is da Vinci Surgical System designed and created by the American corporation, Intuitive Surgical Inc. You can see the system performed a surgery on a grape by clicking here.
Furthermore, with the help of 5G, robots can also help doctors to perform invasive treatment remotely. In January 2019, the Chinese surgeon, Dr. Ling Zhipei completed the first 5G-powered brain surgery in the world. In this particular case, the doctor was in Sanya City, China during the surgery while his patient with Parkinson’s disease was in Beijing. The distance between the two places is over 1,800 miles.
In some occasions, people are taking advantage of the fact that “robots look sentient but is in fact inanimate“ to help patients with special conditions. For instance, a robot toy called Leka is designed to help children with autism. While these children may be uncomfortable interacting with people, the cute but non-living robot may be able to become a bridge between them and other individuals.
Finally, with the technology known as nanorobotics (i.e., robots or machines that possess nanoscale or near-nanoscale components), robots may release the true power of telemedicine in the future. These nanorobots can enter one’s body through a capsule taken orally or through injection like a normal drug. And once inside, it’s possible for them to perform cellular-level treatments that are powerful and can hardly be done today. Such treatments include delivering genes into damaged cells and repair them, cleaning the inner wound and assisting it to heal and so on. Nanorobots can also help moving drug molecules to specific locations to significantly increase the effectiveness of the medicine. And if the drug they deliver is for chemotherapy, nanorobots can protect healthy cells from being hurt by the remedy. Besides curing, nanorobots are appropriate for collecting health data from within the body as well, which should conspicuously increase the accuracy of disease diagnosis. We think it’s safe to assume that once nanorobotics becomes mature, not only diagnosis but also plenty of treatments can happen outside a hospital.
Drones & Flying Vehicles:
One of the hardest problems in healthcare is to provide medical services to people living in faraway and hard-to-reach areas. Fortunately, such problem can be solved by combining telemedicine and drones / flying vehicles. Patients who may be many miles away from the nearest clinic can be diagnosed (perhaps with the help from the patients’ wearable devices) and discuss their conditions with their doctors through telecommunication technologies. Then, if necessary, drones can be bringing medicines and other resources to the patients in need, and flying vehicles can be picking up those who should be moved to a medical institution for further treatment.
Moreover, as shown during the COVID-19 pandemic, the high agility of drones is especially useful during the outbreak of an epidemic, where they can help authorities to monitor the crowd and deliver important messages in a remote fashion.
Extended Reality (XR):
Extended reality or XR is a general term that includes virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) and mixed reality (MR). If you are not familiar with these terms, please refer to our previous article: Extended Reality: Terminology, Development & Business Opportunities.
XR technologies have already been used in training medical students and workers for some years now. For instance, Stanford University School of Medicine opened its Neurosurgical Simulation and Virtual Reality Center in 2016. This center serves multiple functions, and one of them is to allow surgical trainees to hone their skills in a VR-simulated operation. Similar technique can also help real surgeons to better prepare for their upcoming operations. In such cases, surgeons can first build a digital twin of a patient (i.e., an interactable avatar of the patient) with the health data of him or her, and then performing simulating operation on the twin before the actual surgery begins.
In addition, the immersion feature of VR can be valuable for certain types of psychotherapy, such as exposure therapy that helps people to overcome their fear, PTSD treatment and treatment regarding substance abuses.
Lastly, in the time of a pandemic, AR may help people to maintain social distancing. For instance, Snapchat has worked with World Health Organization (WHO) in creating a pair of Snapchat Lenses. It can draw an AR “safe circle” for you on the ground, reminding you not to stay too close to others while in the public.
In comparison with the technologies mentioned above, 3D printing is relatively young and has not yet to be fully explored, but it holds great potential for medical applications.
3D printing can be utilized to print human tissues or organs, such as skin, hearts or even livers, and it will be extremely helpful for the patients who are waiting for organ donation once such technology (i.e., bioprinting) matures in the future.
3D printing can also help doctors to make cheap and highly customized medical equipment or tool, such as a prosthesis, in relatively short time.
Brain Computer Interface (BCI):
Among all current medical advancement, brain computer interface is arguably the most science-fiction and impressive one. Through the help of artificial intelligence, computers can now understand the relationship among inner cerebral activities, sensations and outer actions, and accordingly realize miracles like translating electrocorticographic (ECoG) data into text and building mind-controllable protheses that grant the user the sense of touch, etc.
We think it’s expectable that researchers from both academia and enterprises will increase their understanding and intervention to our brain, and this should eventually lead to technologies that can help us to handle mental disorders (e.g., Alzheimer’s disease, cerebral damages after stroke, etc.) that are impossible to cure nowadays (P.S., As a matter of fact, Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, has claimed in 2019 that his neural-technology company, Neuralink, will be able to solve conditions such as schizophrenia and autism. Although such statement is controversial in today point of view, it’s certainly not completely impossible, and such technology is exactly what many hope to achieve in the future).
Machine that merges with our body:
Invasive BCI (e.g., those plant chips inside people’s head) and mind-controllable protheses show a possible trend for future healthcare, that is, merging human body with machine, which is a powerful idea whether you like it or not since machine can be easily fixed and immune to the influences from viruses and bacteria. This, of course, may be a little bit far-fetched for now. However, one should be aware that some relevant techniques have already existed. For example, the first “neurochip” made of silicon that is capable of interacting with brain cells has been created by a team leaded by Dr. Naweed Syed in 2004. Also, a group of researchers from Columbia University and its medical center has created an internal ion-gated organic electrochemical transistor (IGT) in 2019 which can safely interact with biological tissues, and it’s clear that such transistors can be used as building blocks for bioelectronics that can be integrated with human body.
Potential issues for future healthcare
As we can see from previous discussion, healthcare in the future should be more remote, instant, preventive and automatic. Although these features can be convenient in many ways, they inevitably give rise to new problems as well. The following is a list of them:
How to ensure data quality?
Hospital is a relatively stable environment, in which medical tests and treatments are performed by experts in a controlled condition, and this means that people’s health data collected in it will most likely be in high quality.
In telemedicine, however, health data may be recorded in a much unstable condition, hence damaging the effectiveness of the health services. Possible reasons for the degradation of health data’s quality are as follows:
(1) Patients do not have the expertise to handle the data.
(2) Data got lost during the transmission.
(3) The environmental interferences are too strong.
To overcome these unwanted factors, doctors should be giving very clear and specific instruction to their patients, and a steady and high-speed Internet connection is indispensable for both sides. It will also be helpful that the devices recording the health data are extremely smart and easy-to-use, so that they can prevent potential mistakes from happening to the maximum extent.
How to resolve the privacy concern?
In telemedicine, data will have to be transferred across a long distance, and that will increase the chance for these data to be eavesdropped by unauthorized individual(s). For this concern, blockchain will be able to help, but the problem will not go away unless we increase people’s awareness and knowledge of cybersecurity and data privacy.
Who should take the blame when an accident occurs?
In traditional healthcare system, it’s relatively incontrovertible that who should be responsible for a medical dispute. But once healthcare is decentralized from hospitals, it will be a lot more difficult for one to find the people who should take the responsibility since there may be multiple parties involved (e.g., the firms who manufactured the wearable devices, the firms that provides the telecommunication services, the non-medical institution that provides medical service, the doctors, the patients, and so on).
This issue can be very intractable, and some amendment of the current laws may be required to resolve it.
How much do you trust AI’s predictions / decisions?
There is no doubt that artificial intelligence will be able to provide useful insights about one’s health condition in the future, but whether such insights are useful or not may not depend on AI itself but how much faith people have in the tech. Fortunately, according to the history of scientific developments, it’s safe to say that this problem will gradually fade away with time passing, and AI’s contribution to our health will therefore correspondingly increase.
Is it safe / ethical to turn a human being into a cyborg?
As mentioned before, we’ve already had techniques that enable us to merge with machine, but “should we use them on ourselves” is a completely different question. Similar to the situation regarding AI, people’s concern on this topic should slowly dissipate with time, and it’s very likely that such tech will eventually become the norm for us.
Technical barriers that are hard to overcome:
Finally, we must emphasize that the new healthcare system described previously cannot replace the traditional one completely: there are many things in medical field that should not be implemented remotely (e.g., it’s rather impractical to perform radiological exams at home or any other places except for a radiology room). Instead, the two systems should coexist with each other and accordingly create a synergistic effect that benefits our well-being.
In conclusion, with the improvement of our technology, we believe the following trends are very likely to be dominant for future healthcare:
Preventing over curing
More healthcare services will be provided remotely
Healthcare will be decentralized
We will rely on technology more in the future
Note that although some of them are still faraway from now, others seem to be just around the corner, and they may arrive faster than we thought due to the increasing pace of innovation. We should start preparing ourselves for these new shifts in healthcare immediately by thinking about how to resolve the corresponding issues (considering how slow legislation is comparing to the development of new techniques), and only through that we can better enjoy the merits brought by these technologies when the time comes.
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