18 Jun 5 Tech-Driven Health Innovations That Won’t Just Cut Costs
The online discourse on health is decidedly negative. Google the words “health benefit” and you’ll get millions of results. Do a search for “health cost,” and you’ll get over a billion hits.
But there’s a lot to be optimistic about when it comes to health. Data- and tech-driven innovations are slated to improve a slew of health outcomes for people, not just reduce expenses for companies.
Here, we look at five much-talked-about technologies and break down specific healthcare use cases that are primed to make our lives better.
1. 3D-printed body parts
Scientists have made remarkable progress in producing 3D-printed healthcare solutions. Medical implants that previously took weeks to mold, such as ports for draining bodily fluids, implantable bands, balloons, soft catheters, slings and meshes, can now be personalised in hours.
The next frontier is 3D-printing living tissue that can support, repair or augment diseased and damaged areas of the body. This would make the practice of transplanting lab-grown organs, first achieved in 2011, more scalable. For over a decade, scientists have tried to use 3D-printing technology for tissue engineering and regenerative medicine, and have made significant inroads in solving related challenges, including finding renewable cell sources, programming properties of biomaterials and vascularization.
Most recently, researchers from Queen Mary University of London published a study in Advanced Functional Materials that described a new “ink” for 3D printing. Composed of cells found in natural tissues, this new material can be used to create biological structures that can be manufactured under digital control and with molecular precision.
2. Wearables fatigue detection
The field of data-driven fatigue detection is oddly underdeveloped. In a 2015 study involving commercial pilots, it was found that no single measurement device could reliably measure fatigue levels with enough granularity to allow for useful detection. The physiological measurement devices used in the study included PSG electrodes, an audio recorder, an EEG monitor, an eye-behavior tracker and an ultrasonic head posture monitor. Another study concluded that vehicle direction bested driver biometrics in detecting drowsiness.
Still, the significance of this would-be tech wonder is clear. Real-time fatigue detection will optimise performance as well as reduce injury or death across multiple domains, such as sports and education. In construction, for example, where fatigue is a leading accident risk factor, fatigue data could save companies around $5,000 per worker per year in lost productivity. It will also pave the way for fatigue prediction, which would result in its own set of positive outcomes.
Thankfully, scientists are still hard at work on this important technology and there’s positive, albeit slow, progress being made.
3. AI for cancer research
The majority of the conversation involving machine learning and healthcare revolves around accurate disease diagnosis. After all, medical errors, including misdiagnoses, is a leading cause of death.
While this use case for machine learning, a form of AI where a model automatically learns and improves based on previous experiences, would indeed be very useful, we’re still years away far from its general application in oncology. IBM Watson, the most known player in this field, for example, “is still struggling with the basic step of learning about different forms of cancer,” according to STAT, a Boston Globe property that investigated Watson’s capabilities. In their 2017 report, a South Korean cancer specialist who has used Watson said it was in its toddler stage; an IBM representative said it was in its infancy.
Still, this is a field that’s rife with activity. Researchers at MIT and the Massachusetts General Hospital recently developed a machine learning tool that could help identify high-risk breast lesions that are likely to become cancerous, potentially reducing unnecessary surgeries. Beyond cancer, machine learning may also transform how we detect and deal with heart disease, severe sepsis and retinal disease.
4. Robots in surgery
The practice of using robots in the operating room dates back to 1985, when the PUMA 560 robotic surgical arm was used in a neurosurgical biopsy. Since then, robot assistance has become so common that it is now the rule rather than the exception in certain surgeries, such as laparoscopic kidney removal.
The benefits are clear. Robotic surgery has been shown to minimise post-surgical complications and to improve efficiency, efficacy and precision. Last year, surgeons using a robotic device successfully sutured lymphatic vessels of 0.3 millimeters in the arm of a patient in what was dubbed as the world’s first super-microsurgery.
As the surgical robotics market grows from $3bn in 2014 to $6bn by 2020, the role of robots is also shifting, from serving as instruments to acting more like surgeons. Two years ago, a robot used its own vision, tools, and intelligence to stitch up a pig’s small intestines, and outperformed human surgeons who were given the same task. And as robots learn more surgical sub-functions, it is expected that they can someday become independent, similar to how vehicles performed small tasks like brake assist on their way to becoming autonomous.
5. Virtual reality for pain management
Virtual reality (VR) may not achieve mass adoption, but several use cases of this immersive technology in in pain management show true promise.
A recent study published in the Journal of Pediatric Psychology suggests that VR can be an effective non-pharmaceutical intervention to manage children’s pain. Investigators at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles found that patients using VR as their blood was drawn perceived significantly less acute pain, anxiety and general distress during the procedure. Another study showed that VR may also reduce pre-surgical anxiety. In a randomised trial involving 70 children, those who virtually visited the operating room with a friendly digital penguin guide felt less anxious before the procedure.
Among adults, a recent study published in the journal Neurology showed that VR may help paraplegics reduce phantom pain by creating an illusion that they can feel their paralysed legs being touched again. So while the technology may be virtual, it’s potential to help people is very real.