The future of healthcare: Five trends in medtech
It is no secret that we are in the midst of another industrial revolution. Guided by big data and an adoption of interconnectivity across multiple industries, today’s innovation goes further than just factories. Projects such as smart cities show how Industry 4.0 will affect society at a deeper level, and medicine is no exception. Here Ramya Sriram, digital content manager of online freelance platform for scientists Kolabtree, details five leading trends in medical technology.
There has been a strong mix of government and private interest in nanotechnology in the last two decades. In no place is this more visible than the US, where cumulative federal funding since 2001 is approaching $29 billion. Furthermore, Congressional Research Service reports claim that global yearly private sector research spending in nanotechnology surpasses its public counterpart by billions.
Medical applications for nanotechnology vary widely, with drug delivery representing an important future milestone for pharmaceutical companies. The ability to target individual cells using particles as small as a virus to deliver medication could significantly reduce the quantity of a drug needed for desirable effects to emerge.
Washington University’s Center for Multiple Myeloma Nanotherapy is one of many research centres that seeks to use these advancements to create more humane and effective treatments. Using light sensitive medication to destroy undesirable cells, researchers hope to make chemotherapy more accessible to patients suffering from myeloma, a form of blood cancer.
Nanotechnology also promises advancements in wearable technologies. Flexible sensors could easily be attached to skin tissue, the largest organ in the human body, to measure any number of patient details including blood oxygenation, hydration or glucose levels. The shrinking size of these devices would also enable researchers to explore new ways of powering the technology, possibly going as far as using the human body itself.
Not all wearable technology, however, finds nanotechnology to be the most promising immediate route to innovation. Wiring such small devices is a demanding task, and regulations will probably place great responsibility on the shoulders of medical device manufacturers. Instead, we have witnessed a flourishing market of wearable sensors targeting commercial audiences.
The number of people using devices such as smart watches has drastically increased in the last few years and with it the amount of data generated daily by users. Apple has attempted, and arguably failed, to pivot the Apple Watch into a diagnostic tool for heart-related conditions. However, it has found a better use for its commercial device as a data collector for medical research.
In collaboration with various US universities and national health institutions, Apple has announced it will give users the option to allow their data to contribute to medical research. Three studies have been announced, which will focus on menstrual cycles and gynaecological conditions, heart rate and mobility and everyday sound exposure’s effects on hearing.
According to Strategy Analytics, Apple shipped over five million smart watches in the second quarter of 2019 alone. Given the amount of data the collective pool of Apple Watch users could produce, it is understandable why established medical research centres are collaborating with businesses. Partnerships between academia and private data collectors could represent a new kind of medical public-private partnership.
Some wearable technology is making use of advancements in robotics to develop a much larger product ― exoskeletons. Wearables as assistive technology recently gathered global attention when researchers from the University of Grenoble, France, helped a man to move all four of his paralysed limbs using an exoskeleton. This initiative shows a different side to wearable technology, one that focuses on rehabilitation and human centred design.
However, the exoskeleton built by French researchers has limitations. The patient was required to be attached to a ceiling-harness, to ensure no loss of balance. The modest information that can be detected and processed from the 32 electrodes on the patient’s cranium restrict the mechanical responses from the system’s artificial limbs.
Innovations in brain computer interfaces (BCI) could increase on the amount of useful data that can be obtained from invasive implants. Private advancements on this front are not uncommon, as demonstrated by Neuralink, Elon Musk’s neurotechnology company. Researchers announced successful testing on lab rats of a BCI with 1,500 electrodes, connected to the brain using 4 to 6 μm width arrays of 3,072 electrodes each.
Robot applications in industry are increasing, with the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) reporting over 400,000 robot installations worldwide in 2018. The road to exoskeletons capable of autonomous walking is challenging but both information and mechanical technologies required for its development are growing steadily. In the near future, another story may inform us of a group of researchers stepping up to this challenge.
Diagnostic artificial intelligence (AI)
Moving from rehabilitation to diagnosis, innovation plays a central role in maintaining health as well as restoring it. Since its inception in 2011, cloud based AI IBM Watson has been marketed as a revolutionary tool for healthcare. Since vast amounts of medical data are collected and left to gather dust, IBM engineers hoped to create a technology that would not only perform diagnostics but supervise the whole treatment process.
However, the implementation process did not go as expected. Goals of taking over doctor’s responsibilities were considered unrealistic by many. According to health news-site STAT, Watson may have gone as far as recommending unsafe cancer treatments to patients. As a new entry to the world of healthcare, it seems clear that entrusting the entirety of a patient’s treatment to a supercomputer is not a good use of this technology currently.
Fortunately, IBM has been focusing on specialising the skillset of its supercomputer. Researchers at the Hardin Memorial Hospital, US, have partnered with IBM Watson to improve the quality of its radiology centres. Structuring data that would otherwise be ignored by doctors into something helpful for diagnosis, AI proves to be more suited in assisting expert decision making than replacing it.
Technology that extracts valuable information out of unused data is only likely to grow in popularity as the amount of data produced increases. Further implementations of AI in diagnosis is likely to go hand in hand with increased use of wearable sensors.
An increase in the amount of data available is also likely to result in better simulations in the medical industry. One of these innovative simulations is known as a digital twin, digital recreations of systems regularly informed by sensors. Hospital wards or entire healthcare models could be simulated to predict potential complications in advance, allowing medical workers to prepare.
In Singapore, this technology is used to predict energy consumption, minimising waste and maintaining appropriate power across the city’s grid. Similarly, players across manufacturing industries look to digital twins for predictive maintenance, saving hours of downtime from reducing their profits.
While this may seem very distant to healthcare, it is highly transferable. Knowing when patient intake is likely to change will play a crucial role in making staff schedules more planned and organised. Similarly, decreasing the downtime of machinery enables a hospital to operate more efficiently, increasing the number of patients that can be helped at a given time.
In the future, this technology could be taken further. Using sensors to regularly update the digital twins of individual patients could give doctors a constantly updated and predictive simulation of their patient. This advancement will require a society native to Industry 4.0, with high standards of cybersecurity, to protect both patients’ health and their data.
The fourth industrial revolution has swept through many industries and medtech is no exception. Let’s not forget that none of these innovations could happen without the people behind them. If you think your team could benefit from the contribution of an external expert, Kolabtree provides freelance statisticians, regulatory professionals and data scientists to help you analyse your data and prepare your product for market.
by Ramya Sriram