Walk into a doctor’s office in the developing world and you’ll likely see a computer, a phone, and an array of other medical technologies. Similarly, in the developing world, specialist technologies like solar-powered hearing aids and mobile testing labs, are helping to provide care in the field. Technology has always played a significant role in patient care, from the early 1800s where medical machinery became widely available for imaging and diagnostics, to the current day, where exciting innovations in virtual reality (VR), artificial intelligence (AI), organ donation, bionic limbs and robotics are on the horizon.

AI in healthcare

AI in healthcare will be a significant market, with some experts predicting its potential to be trillions of dollars. Investor Tej Kohli, for example, anticipates that it will be worth $150 trillion by 2025. AI will be a powerful ally for healthcare professionals because it can augment many of their roles. Drug discovery and repurposing can be made quicker and more accurate using machine learning (a subset of AI). AI can also sift through thousands of medical papers to aid research. Returning to gene therapy, AI can analyse and link much more genomic data than a human team alone.

Similarly, it can be combined with gene therapy to better understand the efficacy of certain medicines, provide targeted care and even find a cure for cancer.

Gene therapy

BioNTech is one company that’s working on personalised cancer vaccines by comparing the DNA sequences of cancerous and health cells. The vaccines, delivered using messenger RNA, doesn’t edit human DNA but stimulates the immune system to attack a tumour. The treatment is cheaper than other novel cancer treatments like cell therapy.

The Internet of Things

Then there’s the Internet of Things (IoT). Sensors can collect a vast amount of patient data in real-time, allowing healthcare professionals to analyse different patterns of behaviour and biometric data that could predict disease. Patient adherence to a treatment plan could also be tracked, alongside key metrics such as blood glucose levels in a diabetic. All of this data can be fed back to physicians, who, using AI, will have a better understanding of their patient’s wellbeing.

Brighter AB, a Swedish IoT start-up, has developed an IoT device that automates the collection of glucose readings and insulin injections. In doing so, it improves the patient experience as they no longer have to remember to take insulin or readings. It also increases adherence and collects data for the patient’s healthcare team and authorised family members.

Virtual reality to relieve pain

Beyond this, other technologies are providing cutting-edge treatments for patients. VR, for example, is being trialled as a pain reliever for mothers in labour. The University Hospital of Wales in Cardiff is running the trial to see whether VR can be a viable alternative to pain medication. The VR headsets and content played is said to help mothers enter a state of relaxation.

Better bionic limbs

Technology for people with limb differences is also improving. Traditional prosthesis are often limited in their mobility and comfort, often lacking a multi-function grip and unsuccessfully mimicking the capabilities of the lost limb. High-functioning bionic limbs, however, are being developed that give greater mobility and can reduce many complications (like discomfort or wearing away of an area) associated with prosthetics.

Tej Kohli recently funded ten specialist ‘Hero’ arms for children in the UK as part of theTej Kohli Foundation’s  ‘Future Bionics’ program. Each Hero arm is 3D-printed to each child, giving greater comfort and connection with the limb. The arms have a multi-functional grip that responds to electrical signals in the child’s muscles, enabling them to perform many more everyday activities like playing rugby and cricket.

Improving transplants

Transplants are also getting a boost through technology, with many preventable conditions effectively addressed before they worsen. This is particularly important in the developing world where a lack of access to affordable and local healthcare is worsening symptoms and prognosis. For example, corneal transplants are the most common treatment for blindness caused by corneal injury, but donor shortages and high costs mean that poor people cannot access it. A potential solution, developed by collaborators including the UCL Institute of Ophthalmology and Moorfields Eye Hospital, involves a liquid gel that sets at body temperature and helps the cornea heal itself. Providing a low-cost solution that can be scaled in low-resource, poor nations.

Studies have also shown that synthetic organ creation is possible via stem cell technology and 3D printing. Organs grown in a lab can be implanted as-and-when a patient needs, providing a solution for the world’s organ donor shortage. So far, researchers have successfully 3D printed several organs including a thyroid gland, a tibia replacement (that has been used in a patient) and heart cells. U.S. biotech firm Detraxi, meanwhile, is working on artificial blood that can help organs be preserved for longer journeys at ambient temperatures. Into, say, rural areas where refrigeration is limited.

Mobile technology adapts to patients

Finally, some healthcare technology is taking advantage of existing tools, like smart home assistants, wearables and smartphones. The widespread availability of mobile technology, for example, has changed the way patients access services and treatments. There is a proliferation of specialised mental health apps available to smartphone users who don’t wish to interact face-to-face with a therapy team. Calm, Cove and Sleepio are three solutions recommended by the UK’s NHS.

For those with special needs like autism, the rise in mobile health tech will help them access care that they may otherwise avoid due to social communication difficulties. Mobile technology is being used to help individuals with autism with alternative communication, social skills training, speech and language therapy, improving motor skills and increasing their independence.

Much on the horizon

This is but a snapshot of the many technologies available today and soon to emerge in healthcare. The sector is experiencing a period of exciting growth and experimentation. With researchers, charities, physicians, philanthropists and private companies all working towards a common goal. To make patient care better, improving outcomes and increasing the quality of healthcare globally.

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