Will also be published on the Typewriter publication.
The tech landscape is constantly evolving and, with it, some branches eventually make their way into medicine and can have a profound impact. The main promise is that healthcare will become more accessible, more personalised and therefore more effective. With the current situation of the NHS today, it provides an avenue of hope to increase efficiency and sustainability — as discussed in an article previously. However, things are about to move from the inner recesses of hospitals and play a more integral role in our daily lives.
Virtual / Mixed Reality
At the heart of maintaining accessibility in this new era is VR, MR and AR. These terms represent the spectrum of immersive technologies currently available, and all will be pivotal in improving medical education or even health outcomes.
At the Giant Health Event 2016, I had the chance to meet Dr Shafi Ahmed, who was involved in the event showcasing global innovation and technology. He was the first surgeon to broadcast an operation live using the recently announced Snapchat Spectacles, and also in 360° using Google Glass. His work perfectly represents the paradigm shift, as new medical uses are found for established technologies. He runs Medical Realities and hopes to continue broadcasting surgeries through a great virtual reality app by Mativision you can download, VRinOR.
Aside from this, there are projects such as SimForHealth, which offer a simulated environment for medical students to train in. This ensures that younger doctors are more confident when carrying out treatments / checkups for the first time, and know how to cope if things go wrong.
Used in novel ways, these immersive devices can lead to tangible improvements in patients. I got to hear from Andrea McKinnon from GestureTek, which creates technologies that induce a fun environment in hospitals and enhance patient engagement. This is especially useful for patients with dementia or Parkinson’s, and seems promising to help with recovery from brain injuries.
Shifting our focus away from VR, there is also Mixed Reality. Devices like Microsoft’s HoloLens (in collaboration with Pearson) overlays holograms onto a see-through lens to make virtual objects appear like they exist in reality. I got to try them on and was surprised at how well everything just worked. With anatomy, you can ‘peel’ away different layers of the body, moving closer or further to see details (as the hologram remains in the same place). Previously hard to grasp concepts, such as neuronal pathways in the brain or various parts of the 3D heart as it beats, can now be studied easier than ever. Of course, however, this technology is still in early stages. I look forward to its development as it gets lighter, smarter and becomes more intertwined with teaching in healthcare.
This is another branch of wearables that deserves its own section. Biosensors aim to continuously monitor a person’s biochemistry and vital signs, allowing for notable advancements in personalised medicine. The most common (and, sadly, most basic) of these sensors can now be found in mainstream products, like FitBits and Apple Watches. They can be used currently to monitor fitness, even tailoring workout routines to optimise performance. However, in the future these devices could be used to track a plethora of variables in the human body — and, most importantly, allow these to be sent to a healthcare professional, to be used in diagnosis/monitoring.
For example, Lumee by Profusa allows tracking of tissue oxygen levels through sensors placed directly under the skin. This can prove useful for patients suffering from peripheral artery disease (~202m exist) which mostly effects the lower limbs. With real-time data of oxygen levels provided to the clinicians, treatment can be administered before irreversible damage occurs to the limbs.
It’s safe to say that we’ll see more and more of these sensors being incorporated into wearables for the average customer. There’s even been a recent push in the way of hearables, to be used for fitness enthusiasts. I also have high hopes for Google’s digital contact lenses which could be used to monitor glucose levels if their venture with Alcon delivers. If you’re interested in how the biosensing market is progressing, this report is a good introduction.
The computer will see you now.
Big data is a massive buzzword in medicine. Although there is a need to standardise data collection, we are now collecting more data than ever on patients — and A.I. is becoming ever more proficient at making sense of it all.
“The volume of healthcare data recently reached 150 exabytes. At projected growth rates, the volume of healthcare data will soon be zettabyte and yottabyte scale. That’s enough data to fill a stack of DVDs that would stretch from Earth to Mars.”
You may have heard of IBM’s Watson before. It’s a service that aims to answer questions or predict outcomes using neural learning, mimicking the brain in a way. Yes, those capabilities could be used to beat a chess grandmaster (as it did against Garry Kasparov) but it can do much more. Over the last 30 years, scientists have identified about 28 protein targets to study for potential cancer treatments. Watson, with a reading speed of 67m pages per second, read about 23 million research papers and came up with 9 targets in 30 days. The power and promise of these technologies are there for all to see.
Hearing Thomas Balzikas of IBM at the same conference, he mentions the role this technology will have to play diagnostically in the future. Doctors are well trained in what they do, but there are limits to how many factors they can take into account at any one time. IBM Watson Health hopes to provide a well-trusted second opinion, taking into account genetics, demographics and current illnesses. It’s also now able to make more sense of data that already exists within hospitals, such as a standard radiology report. With this and data acquired from wearables, the premise is that a confidence score can eventually be conjured for any treatment.
There are many other noteworthy startups that I’ve omitted, but that also have great potential. For example, MedShr, Babylon and Viz.ai. Overall though, it is a great time for technology and medicine, and what comes to fruition from the merging of the two.