Though we're living in uncertain times, the scientific community is rallying to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. Even during the outbreak, innovations in health and medicine technologies continue unabated.
To celebrate World Health Day, and all the health professionals out there working tirelessly during these difficult times, here are 17 of the most recent breakthroughs that signal good times ahead for the future of healthcare for years to come.
Remote desktop software and remote work tools, in general, have been a lifesaver for many people who have had to work from home due to the coronavirus.
Telehealth takes this concept, but, instead of bringing your office desktop to your home, it brings your doctor straight to your screen to help you diagnose any problem you might have. At difficult times, such as during a pandemic that forces the majority of people to stay at home, this time of technology can be essential and potentially lifesaving.
2. Virtual reality
Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) are both showing great promise when it comes to health and medicine.
Doctors at George Washington University Hospital are using VR technology to learn more about the coronavirus and how it spreads. pic.twitter.com/ls1kEC8Ff9— CNET (@CNET) April 6, 2020
Studies have shown that it can be surprisingly effective as a form of pain relief, as well as a means to train doctors for surgery. As CNET points out, doctors from George Washington University Hospital have even been using it to learn more about COVID-19.
Wearables for health and medicine have been around for a while, but recent innovations suggest that they'll be around for a long time and will continue to develop and grow as a technology for tracking our health.
While fitness trackers and heart monitors are fairly commonplace by now, biosensors, such as Philips' wearable biosensor, are a device that collects a wide array of data on patients including their heart rate, respiratory rate, and temperature. In the future, combining wearables with telehealth (see point 1) could mean that our health is monitored around the clock and in real-time.
We've almost all seen it by now, that 5G demonstration whereby a surgeon performs a surgery from a different country to a patient using a robotic hand with almost zero latency.
World’s first #5G telesurgery by an orthopedic surgery #robot! The surgery, powered by #5G network of #ChinaTelecom with tech support from #Huawei, was controlled by a doctor in #Beijing #Jishuitan Hospital, and connected with hospitals in East China’s Jiaxing and Yantai. pic.twitter.com/eEWyl4ct6g— Global Times (@globaltimesnews) June 27, 2019
That's the promise of 5G for health and medicine, and though there is some debate about the safety of the technology, it will likely be a force for good in healthcare. The reason for that? Almost any application mentioned in this article will be able to be carried out at a fraction of the time.
Large imaging files will be sent to doctors in milliseconds, telehealth will be more easily accessible, and real-time monitoring will be more reliable — these are only a few of the benefits.
5. The Internet of Medical Things (IoMT)
As life expectancy rises, fast, effective solutions are needed to keep growing populations healthy. Much in the same way that telehealth could be seen as the remote desktop equivalent for healthcare, the Internet of Medical Things (IomT) is the health and medicine equivalent for smart homes and the Internet of Things (IoT).
With the advent of 5G (see above), interconnected devices will be able to share data at incredible speeds — with approximately 1 millisecond of latency. Healthcare will be automated like never before, meaning that homes and hospitals will be more connected and patients can be more easily diagnosed and treated.
6. Selfie and video diagnoses
A smartphone app developed at the University of Washington, called BiliScreen, allows users to take a selfie in order to screen themselves for a wide array of diseases, including pancreatic cancer.
The app makes the user's camera focus on the whites of the eyes where it can detect a slight yellowing of the eye, even when it's not visible to the naked eye. This yellowing is an early symptom of pancreatic cancer. Much in the same fashion, the ScanBox app and kit allows people to send dental imaging to their dentists for a remote checkup.
7. Big data
Big data has already been shown to save lives when used in healthcare. The technology allows researchers to check and cross-reference information at a rate that isn't possible for mere mortals.
As one Forbes article points out, four hospitals that are part of the Assistance Publique-Hôpitaux de Paris have been using data from various sources to come up with daily and hourly predictions of how many patients are expected to be at each hospital at any given time. This allows these hospitals to staff their hospitals adequately based on the predictions.
Scientists were also able to analyze years of insurance and pharmacy data, via big data, in order to identify 742 risk factors that predict with a high degree of accuracy whether someone is at risk for abusing opioids. Countless other applications, including the research of chemical compounds and treatments, exist.
Robots have been used extensively throughout the COVID-19 outbreak. Whether it's disinfecting UV light-emitting robots that zap viruses and bacteria, or robots that can help to diagnose coronavirus patients, allow university graduations to take place during the outbreak, spread awareness and even hand out sanitizing gel, robotics has been a great application for enabling interaction during our times of mandated social distancing.
To help reduce the risk of infection, robots are helping doctors treat coronavirus patients in Italy. pic.twitter.com/n2DJSgkTBS— Al Jazeera English (@AJEnglish) April 5, 2020
Even before the pandemic, robot health assistants were already on the rise. Last year, for example, Samsung unveiled its Bot Care robot health assistant at CES. The care bot can talk and monitor key health indicators of patients while giving family members and doctors insights into a patient's health. Othe companies like Oz Robotics and ZoraBots have also created their own robot health and medicine assistants.
9. 3D Printing
3D printing has already revolutionized health and medicine, largely by making it possible to print parts that are needed on demand. This famously allowed a group of engineers in Italy, including Massimo Temporelli, founder of The FabLab in Milan, to print out parts that were sorely needed by hospitals for life-saving ventilators for COVID-19 patients.
3D printing also shows great promise for making prosthetics more accessible and affordable (see point 11) and it has even been used to print small organs out of living tissue. Take, for instance, BIOLIFE4D's 3D-printed mini heart.
10. Artificial intelligence
Only last month, Google-owned Deepmind released AI predictions of COVID-19 so as to provide much-needed information on the potential development of the virus.
Today we're sharing structure predictions for six proteins associated with the virus that causes COVID-19, generated by the most up-to-date version of our AlphaFold system. We hope this contributes to the research community’s understanding of the virus:https://t.co/jW0SIA2b1F pic.twitter.com/VelyywLsDu— DeepMind (@DeepMind) March 5, 2020
Its deep learning system, which is already used to predict how protein structures will develop, was trained on SARS COV-2, the virus that causes the COVID-19 disease. Much in the same way as Big Data, 5G, and IoT, AI is one of several emerging interconnected technologies that has the ability to completely change health and medicine.
Companies like Bristol's Open Bionics are developing prosthetics that look cool in order to fight the stigma against people with disabilities. Their prosthetics are also cheaper than most other alternatives on the market.
Combined with technologies like nanotech and graphene, which make the movement sensors in prosthetics more comfortable, a new advanced type of prosthetics might see a surge in the near future.
As National Geographic points out, 3D printing also has great potential for lowering the cost of prosthetic limbs that would otherwise be far too expensive for people in less-developed countries.
12. Bionic eyes
Last year, scientists at the University of Minnesota made a great step towards creating functioning bionic eyes that can help the blind see by 3D printing an array of light receptors onto a hemispherical surface.
The 'eye' made by the researchers contains photodiodes that have been shown to convert light into electricity with 25 percent efficiency. Such applications might one day mean that many of us are turned into cyborgs as parts of our bodies are replaced by technology.
Only a few months ago, researchers revealed that a paralyzed man was able to walk again thanks to an exoskeleton and an implant in his brain.
Published in the journal The Lancet Neurology, the scientist's findings detail how the man undertook a two-year trial whereby he was gradually able to train a robotic system to translate his thoughts into motion, allowing him to walk once again.
14. Medical contact lenses
If exoskeletons and bionic eyes weren't sci-fi enough, a team of scientists affiliated with UNIST recently unveiled a new biosensing contact lens that detects glucose levels in patients with diabetes.
The medical, or smart, lenses, monitor glucose levels from tears in the eye via built-in pliable, transparent electronics. Incredibly, the contacts are said no to be bothersome to wearers, despite the fact that they essentially stick a miniature electronic circuit right up against the retina. Though the technology is still in a developmental phase, it might have some incredible applications for health and medicine in the future.
15. Brain implants (BCIs)
Brain computer interfaces (BCIs) are implants that are put into a person's brain, allowing them to control a computer using their mind. It is a technology that likely won't reach its full potential for many years. And yet, because they could completely change our lives, several big names are working on their development, while promising big things.
With typical bombast, Elon Musk last year announced that the system made by his BCI company Neuralink is "a thousand times better" than the current best system.
Introducing Neuralink https://t.co/7EF34GGwN4— Neuralink (@neuralink) July 26, 2019
Neuralink, Elon Musk, and other BCI proponents believe that, in the future, the technology will not only allow us to control computers with our minds, but it will also allow us to mitigate the threat of AI, and help us to better understand and treat brain disorders.
Technological innovations are creating great benefits when it comes to health and medicine. Though we might be living through the uncertainty of a pandemic, here's hoping we'll be well prepared the next time something of this magnitude occurs again.