The digital revolution is transforming healthcare provision around the world, as smart technologies become more health focussed and integrated. Smart technology allows patients more control over their medical care and enables widespread access. With so many smart and mobile devices being developed for medical use, it is easy to see a world in which our healthcare is increasingly digital. The Future of Medicine will be integrated, personalised and data driven.
Some of the big changes we are likely to see in the next ten years come from ideas we are already talking about and using in other fields as being quite normal and mundane. However, some may find it difficult to accept 3D-printed products, microchips, remote sensors and circuit boards making their way into our bodies, or doctors using smart devices to assess our health. In this article, we take a look at current research and how medical scientists hope their work will influence the future.
The Future of Medical Treatment
3D-Printed Organ Transplants
At present, patients in need of an organ transplant had to wait until another human organ became available, matching their blood and tissue types. This is a long and stressful wait, with its own emotional difficulties to handle, and once the transplant is complete the patient becomes dependent for life on anti-rejection drugs to make sure their body accepts the new organ.
To solve this problem, scientists have been making strides in 3D-printing with human tissue. Successful studies have produced skin, glands, bones and tissues that function. This process is much faster and cheaper than growing organs from stem cells. In 2019, researchers at Tel Aviv University successfully printed a human heart, complete with blood vessels, chambers and individual cells [https://thejournalofmhealth.com/exciting-new-advances-in-3d-printing-could-help-solve-cut-organ-transplant-waiting-lists/]. 3D-Printing with human tissues, or bio-printing, means that researchers will soon be able to print a transplantable organ, using the patient’s own DNA to make it certain that the new organ is a match and reduce the risk of rejection. This will cut transplant waiting lists and deaths which occur while waiting.
Ingestible Smart Sensors
Designed to replace invasive exploratory surgeries, ingestible sensors come in the form of a pill, containing a microchip and sensor which feeds information back to a computer. These digital pills are biocompatible and can be used for diagnostics and monitoring. Trials are currently underway for digital pills to monitor gas in the digestive tract [https://www.researchgate.net/publication/322315953_A_human_pilot_trial_of_ingestible_electronic_capsules_capable_of_sensing_different_gases_in_the_gut] and to detect gastrointestinal bleeding using blood-seeking bacteria. These pills can use stomach acid to produce power to keep working and have the potential to shed much light on the capabilities of the stomach, small and large intestines.
Because of the ubiquity of mobile devices such as phones and smart watches, many apps have been developed in recent years focussed around health and medical care. Whether it’s a simple medication reminder on a smartphone or a step counter using the phone’s motion sensors, we’ve all heard of the benefits of monitoring your own health. Now, these technologies are being adapted to have applications within treatment for specific illnesses, for example to monitor the vital signs of patients, and even placing devices on the stomachs of pregnant people to monitor foetal heart rates. By wearing a device that computes the information internally, patients are able to move around freely as there are no wires or bulky machinery.
The Apple Watch Series 5 [https://www.apple.com/uk/apple-watch-series-5/health/] is designed to put health first, with apps to track heart rate, activity, water consumption and menstrual cycles. It includes a function which creates an ECG reading of the electrical signals in the wearer’s heart to indicate irregularities in the heartbeat rhythm.This new model also uses its motion sensors to detect when you’ve had a hard fall, and offers the option to contact emergency contact and emergency services for assistance. For the elderly and those with certain disabilities, this device offers an upgrade from SOS buttons.
The increasing use of mobile health devices has benefits for data driven diagnoses, in that data collected by the device can be used as evidence and even be automatically uploaded to an analysis programme. This leads to faster diagnoses and emergency responses.
Using flexible electronics and printed circuitry, so-called digital tattoos are becoming possible. Worn for just a few days, the tattoos collect data about the wearer’s vital signs, that is heart rate, temperature, blood pressure and breathing rate, and transmit them to a smart device. Researchers are exploring the benefits of these devices for monitoring those at risk of heart failure and stroke, as they can be worn 24 hours a day without needing to be charged [https://medicalfuturist.com/digital-tattoos-make-healthcare-more-invisible/].
Medical Access in the Future
App designers are teaming up with medical professionals to create a future in which medicine embraces the internet age. Apps like ClickGP and SmartClinic offer live, private video appointments between a doctor and a patient. This reduces the risk of cross contamination and improves access to primary care for elderly and disabled people. ClickGP is a private GP service which delivers remote appointments via online video calls in the UK.
The developments behind these apps can be especially beneficial to those living in rural areas and developing countries, who may have to travel many miles to see a doctor. With these potentials in mind, it is easy to imagine applications for organisations such as DoctorsWithoutBorders and the World Health Organisation to share knowledge and skills, spreading access to high quality medical care to those who need it most.
The Future of Medical Research
Body Parts on a Chip
Working at the height of futuristic medicine, the Wyss Institute at Harvard has created working models of human organs the size of a memory card, using real human cells, in order to create a research environment that mimics the human body.[https://www.ted.com/talks/geraldine_hamilton_body_parts_on_a_chip/transcript#t-787562] While taking cells out of the body and into a petri dish allows researchers to observe their structure, cell function stops almost immediately after they are removed from the ever-changing conditions in which they grew. The organ chip allows researchers to test and observe the function of cells and drugs in a dynamic environment, interacting with all elements of that organ, as well as the body’s immune system.
These chips can be used in drug trials to test how genetic differences, ethnicity, age, gender, and more affect results, without really testing on people who might be vulnerable. The organ chips can also be linked together, creating a string of chips which each represent a different organ. This kind of string would be used to test a drug’s behaviour on multiple organs at once. Thinking at the limits of personal healthcare, researchers hope to be able to personalise these chips by taking cells from an individual patient before testing cell function, genetics and drugs to check for reactions. If these chips can be made cheaply, they could revolutionise modern medicine.
Research by App – Covid Symptom Tracker
With the rapid spread of coronavirus, it’s important for medical professionals to know where most cases are and how the virus is spreading. King’s College London have released an app called the Covid Symptom Tracker, encouraging as many people as possible to download the app to their phones and use it to self-report their symptoms daily. Users are asked to share their postcode, sex at birth and age to set up their profile. They then open the app every day to answer whether or not they have been screened for Covid-19 infection and to report their symptoms, selecting either ‘I feel as healthy as normal’ or ‘I’m not feeling quite right’. If they select the latter, they are then asked to describe their symptoms. By collecting this data on mass from volunteer subjects using their mobile phones, researchers can model where the virus will hit hardest and assess which areas are in need of support. However, this method will only work if enough people use the app, and as such relies on people sharing it on social media and WhatsApp. This is collective, grassroots research, which asks people to be comfortable sharing data for research of which they will likely never see the results.
The Digital Depression Monitor
There are now many apps dedicated to tracking users’ moods and outlook, but very few go beyond showing a colour coded calendar to assess the data gathered. Research is underway to develop an app which is as reliable as standard cognitive assessments. If successful, major mood disorders will have quicker diagnoses than before, increasing access to care.
Self Help apps which remind users to complete daily habits often come with a mental health and wellness label, but it is only with proper medical professionals involved in the design process that these will be able to assist in the treatment of chronic mental health problems.
Crisis Management – How Tech Stepped-Up during the Coronavirus Outbreak
Volunteer Recruitment by GoodSam App
As the coronavirus outbreak worsened, the UK National Health Service called for 250,000 volunteer responders to drive patients to appointments and take them home, deliver medication from pharmacies and make phone calls to check in with people isolating at home. The mammoth task has been tackled by redesigning an app which is usually used to alert people with medical training to nearby emergencies. The app became a recruitment form for citizens to enrol as volunteers, upload identification and other documents and receive training, as well as a communications platform via which NHS staff including GPs, doctors, nurses, pharmacists and midwives can request volunteer support.
By using this life-saving crowdsourcing app, the National Health Service has embraced the ubiquity of social media to spread the word and have, at time of writing, enlisted half a million volunteers via the GoodSam app, doubling the government’s initial request.
Medicine in the Future
These medical innovations are already in development, coming from research undertaken in the last decade. By 2030, some of them will be common practice, and others will have fallen at the hurdle of human trials, or abandoned for a more efficient alternative. What we can see is that there are two trends: mobile devices will monitor our health more and we will apply technologies directly to our bodies as treatment.
As with any change, there are those who question how far this should go. With the direct application of circuitry to our bodies, or the use of organs with an inorganic origin, concerns are being raised about the human experience. What happens when we become comfortable swallowing cameras, or dependent on mobile devices to check our health?
Transhumanism is a philosophy which argues that, as modern humans, we already exist in symbiosis with technology. Some of us wear glasses or prosthetics, and some use processes such as IVF. On this basis, transhumanism advocates the enhancement of our physiological and intellectual capabilities through integrated technology. While this desire to radically augment our biology is not widespread, it is clear that soon, technology such as ingestible sensors, gene editing and bodypart chips will be used widely in research and medical facilities around the world.
KIJO is a digital creative agency interested in building the future. We are developing digital tools and websites for medical providers in the UK, working closely with the doctors who thought up Click GP to design and build their video appointment service. We are creating a new website for Equilibrium Healthcare, who are specialists in mental health and dementia care. We are also working with the NHS to build a new website for University Hospital Birmingham’s HearWELL department, which studies the prevention of hearing loss. You can read more about how technology and digital innovation will impact the future in our blogs at https://kijo.co.uk/blog
Video’s further discussing this topic are available on the TED Talks website.