The Future of Medicine: 6 New Technologies Transforming the Field

In a classic "Star Trek" episode, Captain Kirk and Spock lean over the battered body of Dr. McCoy. Spock waves a shiny device over the doctor's chest to assess his condition.

"Star Trek" may be fiction, but technology that allows for quicker, better diagnoses and more effective treatment will soon be a reality.  


6 cutting-edge technologies
Current research reveals exciting possibilities as technology and healthcare continue to advance. Here's a look at six technologies revolutionizing the medical field:

3D printing: California-based research company Organovo has printed human liver tissue to test drug toxicity on specific sections of the liver. Although printing organs for transplants may still be far off, this technology could be used in the near future with individual patients to test their toxicity reactions to specific drugs.

Artificial intelligence: IBM's Watson is just the first step toward using artificial intelligence in medicine. The supercomputer, which defeated two human champions on "Jeopardy!" two years ago, is now being used to diagnose and manage lung cancer treatment. Imagine a computer that could evaluate and analyze a patient's entire genome, biometric data and environmental and personal data, including diet and activity level. The quantity of information is too much for a person to analyze efficiently, so adding an artificial intelligence component could help achieve a new level of understanding.

BCI and BBIs: As brain-computer interfaces become more advanced, healthcare will incorporate more complex human-computer connections. The uses range from helping people manage pain to controlling robotic limbs. Harvard University researchers recently created the first brain-to-brain interface that allowed a human to control a rat's tail — and another human's movements — with his mind, proving that controlled robotic limbs have far-reaching possibilities for patients.

Robotics: Robotics are quickly advancing medical treatment. Ekso Bionics has already launched the first version of its eksoskeleton, which enables paraplegics to stand and walk independently. This revolutionary technology allows a person who has spent 20 years in a wheelchair to stand on her own. This holds huge promise for the next generation of robotics.

Electronic diagnoses: Technology promises to put the burden of care and diagnosis directly in the hands of patients. The XPRIZE Tricorder Challenge is sponsoring a $10 million race to develop a handheld, non-invasive electronic device that can diagnose patients better than a panel of physicians could. Patients would no longer have to go to a doctor's office or hospital. Instead, a device in their homes would analyze their data, diagnose the problem and send their information to a physician who could treat them remotely. Such a device could make healthcare more accessible in rural areas and developing nations. One of the devices up for the challenge is being developed by Scanadu, which also has an electronic urinanalysis stick, similar to a pregnancy test, which performs up to 12 different tests and sends the results through the cloud to the treating physician, eliminating the need for routine lab visits.

Patient-physician interaction technologies: In a typical clinic visit, which lasts just 15 minutes, the provider must evaluate electronic and paper records, check vitals, diagnose and communicate with the patient before providing effective treatment. Advancing technology means the first three of those tasks could be done automatically, giving the physician more time to interact with the patient and provide more accurate treatment. Patients will soon be monitoring their own vital signs. MC10 is prototyping a temporary tattoo (epidermal electronics) that remains for two weeks and effortlessly and continuously captures biometric data.

Changing patient experiences
Advances in technology are already making healthcare better, easier, more accurate and more efficient for physicians, patients, hospital staff and administrators.

These changes will no doubt affect the role of hospitals and emergency departments. As continuous monitoring of biometric data becomes the norm, the ER will be used as a dispatch center, with patients' information reaching the hospital before they do. This will eliminate wait times and decrease the risk of disease transmission, especially important when immune-compromised patients face hours in the ER.

All of these advances translate into one main objective: improving patient outcomes. With access to more powerful tools that are cheaper, faster and better than their predecessors, patient outcomes are certain to improve. People will become increasingly responsible for their own health. This will lead to more effective care, as people will be able to detect problems much earlier in the process. Patients will no longer put off appointments for years because personal health will be ever-present. This will reduce healthcare costs on several levels and change the type of medical professionals the industry needs most.  

We can't even anticipate much of what will come after all of this, but the possibilities for technology and healthcare really are endless. Now, if we could just get a transporter.

Robin Farmanfarmaian is the founding executive producer of the medical conference FutureMed and the vice president of strategic relations for Singularity University. Connect with Robin on Twitter and Google+.  


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