How technology is impacting healthcare

Technological progress is continually changing the healthcare industry by offering benefits to patients and increasing efficiency for professionals. Emerging technologies, artificial intelligence (AI) and big data are coming together to make huge progress in medicine.

7 key technologies in this area include:

1. Telemedicine

Telemedicine refers to the use of telecommunications technology and information technology to provide medical care remotely. Video consultations, digital imaging and remote medical diagnosis are prime examples of telemedicine in practice.  

Hugely beneficial in providing effective healthcare and treatment, telemedicine is an ideal solution for patients who may be unable to attend appointments in person. It offers a faster, cost-efficient and more convenient service for both patients and health professionals alike. In many instances, the level of service is greatly improved as many telemedicine companies have started incorporating electronic medical records, billing solutions and AI diagnosis into their software. Further, it allows doctors to obtain a second opinion from specialists via secure video calls which is hugely beneficial in critical circumstances.

The global telemedicine market size stood at USD 34.28 billion in 2018 and is projected to reach USD 185.66 billion by 2026.

Telemedicine Market Size, Share and Industry Analysis 2019-2026, Fortune Business Insights

2. Healthcare trackers, wearables and sensors

Healthcare trackers and wearable devices have become hugely popular in recent years, enabling users to monitor and track their health at home. Almost any health parameter can be monitored so that patients can manage their conditions with greater ease autonomously. Some examples of trackers and wearables in healthcare include:Wearable fitness trackers– these are typically wristbands that are equipped with sensors to track a user’s steps, physical activity and heart rate. These trackers often provide wearers with reminders to move more and recommendations to improve health and fitness.  

Wearable electrocardiogram (ECG) monitors– in addition to tracking exercise, pace and elevation, ECG monitors also monitor the user’s heart rhythm and electrical signals from the heart. This information can then be sent to the wearer’s doctor as required.

Biosensors– these are self-adhesive patches that are worn by users as they move around. Information relating to movement, heart rate, respiratory rate and temperature is collected to help users monitor their health.

Wearable continuous glucose monitoring (CGM) devices– are devices that continually monitor a diabetic patient’s blood glucose levels throughout the day and night. They obtain regular, automatic readings that can be used to monitor a user’s diabetes effectively.

Fertility trackers– are typically bracelets that monitor the user’s basal body temperature, resting pulse rate, breathing rate and sleep. These wearables help women to track their cycle and fertility.

UV exposure trackers– these are devices that are clipped on to clothing and that track UV intensity, weather and the user’s skin type. An alert is then given when sun protection is required, ensuring that the user does not get sunburnt.

Wearables enable users to monitor their health from the comfort of their own home. They also ensure more efficient healthcare as patients can better manage their conditions without professional intervention and, when they do visit a doctor, often have consistent and accurate data and information to provide.

3. Artificial intelligence

Artificial intelligence (AI) refers to computer systems that perform human-like tasks such as decision-making, speech recognition and visual perception based on data.

As AI can process vast amounts of information quickly, it has been instrumental in reducing the time that it takes to diagnose serious illnesses. This has been particularly useful for neurological diseases such as epilepsy where AI programs can compare scans between healthy patients and those with epilepsy to identify abnormal regions in the brain. Identifying abnormalities quickly can be crucial to the outcome of such conditions.

AI has also made a huge impact on drug discoveries by identifying drug targets, finding candidate molecules from data libraries and suggesting chemical modifications. AI offers a more streamlined and automated approach to drug research and development, an exciting area for the future where the possibilities are potentially limitless.

Artificial intelligence is even making an impact on the speed and duration of hospital visits. At John Hopkins hospital, predictive AI is being used to improve the efficiency of operational patient flow, resulting in a faster and better patient experience.

4. Augmented reality

Augmented reality (AR) offers an interactive experience based on a real-world environment where everyday objects are enhanced by computer-generated information. This is hugely beneficial to the healthcare industry in three ways; to enhance the patient experience, to provide a more efficient practice for medical professionals and to improve medical training and education.

  • Providing a more efficient practice for medical professionals:

Augmented reality glasses are one example of this technology that enables surgeons to see within a patients’ body to obtain important information and data without the need for invasive surgery. With the ability to now visualise bones, muscles and organs before starting surgery, surgeons can gain greater insight into the patient’s condition and can better prepare for surgery accordingly. Vein visualisation offers another application of VR in healthcare where this technology can create a map of patient’s veins onto their skin so that nurses can more efficiently find a vein the first time.

  • Enhancing the patient experience:

AR applications can also improve the patient experience by showing a 3D visualisation of how a particular drug works. This can save time and confusion as patients will not need to read long descriptions on a bottle prior to use. Further, through AR, patients can gain a better understanding of the effects a condition might have. Some applications can simulate the effect of a particular disease to raise awareness and increase empathy so patients may make more appropriate lifestyle choices once they are aware and have experienced through AR, potential effects of a condition.

  • Improving medical training and education

Augmented reality can also be used to enhance the training of medical professionals, providing better and more realistic educational resources than textbooks and diagrams can offer.

5. Nanotechnology 

Nanotechnology refers to the engineering of functional systems at the molecular level. Such technology is hugely influential in shaping the future of the medical industry as it enables advances in:

  • Medical data gathering – Smart pills such as pill cams and sensor pills are ingestible, controlled wirelessly and can obtain data from within the body. The data gathered can then be used to determine the appropriate drug dosages required by a patient or can track when medication was last taken. This is particularly useful for patients with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and dementia who may struggle to manage their own medication. It also assists authorised professionals and caregivers who can track their patient’s medication intake.
  • Targeted drug delivery – Treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation often damage healthy cells whilst treatment is underway. Researchers are therefore working with nanoparticles to create a treatment that specifically targets cancer cells without affecting healthy cells at the same time. This is a huge development in cancer treatment as drug delivery becomes more refined, accurate and improved.
  • Diagnostics– Medical implants such as hip and knee replacements have improved the lives of many patients. However, the risk of post-surgery inflammation and infection is great. As symptoms often become apparent at a later date, treatment becomes increasingly ineffective. To resolve this, nanoscale sensors are being embedded into the implant so that infection can be detected more quickly.

6. Robotics

With consistent performance and increased precision and accuracy, robots are able to ease some of the pressures in hospitals, offering a number of benefits to medical professionals and patients alike.

Robots helping patients
Robots have improved patient care hugely. Examples include exoskeleton robots helping paralysed patients to walk again and bionic limbs embedded with sensors that offer greater accuracy than original body parts. Service and companion robots have been useful for improving the mental health of patients and encouraging them to remain positive. Such robots also help with everyday tasks by providing users with reminders to take medication and performing routine check-ups testing temperature and blood pressure.

Robots helping medical professionals
Robotic surgery is becoming increasingly prevalent as it enables remote surgery and enhances the capabilities of surgeons performing open surgery. Further, care robots have been instrumental in carrying out simple yet fundamental tasks such as taking blood, recording temperatures and improving patient hygiene. Similarly, auxiliary robots have helped medical staff by undertaking repetitive manual tasks such as cleaning, restocking and delivery of items around the hospital. This frees up time for doctors and nurses to spend on improved patient care.

7. 3D printing

By using 3D printing hardware physical objects can be created from a digital, computer-aided file. Multiple materials are then added to the file to build a 3D structure. An ideal technology for the medical industry, 3D printing is used for:Bespoke prosthetics and implants – that are made with precision and accuracy for patient-specific applications. Tailored to the patient, 3D printing enables highly personalised healthcare and is a key technology for custom-made products and devices.

Anatomical models for surgical planning and education – that enable radiologists and surgeons to visualise abnormalities and complex pathologies prior to operating. By creating 3D models of a patient’s anatomy based on a scan, medical professionals can also provide better patient consultations by showing how surgery will be performed and explaining the patient’s conditions more clearly. For medical students 3D models are also useful for showing and teaching about abnormalities such as fractures, tumours and lesions.

Pharmaceutical research – particularly in terms of drug dosage applications and discovery. 3D printing in hospitals and pharmacies enables medical professionals to create a dose and delivery system that is personalised to the patient according to factors such as their age, gender, body size and lifestyle. 3D bio-printed organs have also been instrumental in improving clinical trials as the efficacy of drugs can be tested on bio-printed tissues prior to use on humans.3D printing has also been invaluable in dealing with Covid-19. By using such technology manufacturers and individuals have been able to provide essential medical equipment and PPE to meet the huge surge in demand.

As technologies advance and progress is continually made, the service that medical professionals can provide is constantly improving. Patient care is becoming more efficient, easier to understand and more effective so that outcomes are better thanks to the possibilities that these 7 technologies can provide.

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