It’s 2030, and a woman has just been brought unconscious to an emergency room, following a severe epileptic seizure. The ambulance responded to a distress call from her smart watch, which detected, based on a spike in her heart rate and a change in spatial orientation, that she had fallen and was having a seizure. At the ER, a triage nurse is able to get additional data from the woman’s smart watch, which was linked to her electronic medical records and included information on medications she takes, her allergies and the frequency and severity of seizures.
The medical team, in just a few minutes, has received the vital information it needs to treat the woman. They may even feed the data from her history and results from current tests into an algorithm, which can recommend treatment options based on best practices, although the supervising doctor will make the final determination. The medications she may need are dispensed by an automated pharmacy down the hall, and delivered by a service robot. Meanwhile, her primary care doctor has been notified and her medical records updated.
By 2035 we will face a shortage of almost 13 million health workers.
This ER scenario doesn’t exist now, but these technologies are currently being developed and could transform medical care as we know it. In just a few years, for example, automation might relieve doctors and nurses of burdensome administrative and manual tasks, giving them more time with their patients and helping alleviate a growing shortage of medical professionals.
How these technologies might be orchestrated to work together has yet to be resolved. For automation and other emerging developments to really take hold—such as robots, wearables, 3D printing, augmented and virtual reality and predictive analytics—re-imagined medical processes and workflows and improved data security and privacy are needed.
The robots are here
Thuc Vu, co-founder and chief executive of OhmniLabs in Santa Clara, Calif., is an example of someone who hopes to offer a solution. His low-cost robot—a sort of traveling two-way TV screen—enables remote monitoring of seniors. His company is partnering with care-provider agencies whose biggest problem is finding and keeping workers. Turnover rates run as high as 60 percent in the United States. “Most of caregivers’ time is spent sitting around in the home,” Vu said. “It’s very low productivity.” Using his robots, a caregiver can watch over five to 10 people in different locations, visiting homes when patients want or need assistance. “It’s a win-win for everybody,” Vu said. “The robot-plus-human will enable a less-expensive service for the senior. And with higher productivity per caregiver, the agency can offer higher salaries and hopefully retain good people.”
Simple robots might also be used to do manual work. An automated, guided cart—or “tug”—could deliver drugs or meals in hospitals. “The intention is not to replace people, but rather to give the clinical teams more time to focus on the patient and practice at the top of their license,” said Gloria Zaionz, tech guru at the Innovation Learning Network of Oakland, Calif. “We can use these tools to change how care can be delivered, make it more efficient and give people more face-to-face interaction with their clinical team.”
OhmniLabs co-founder, Jared Go, discusses the robot his company created
How can we improve health care information security? The answer might be blockchain.
Widespread adoption of new health care technologies also depends on ensuring the safety and privacy of people’s medical information. Although it’s likely to remain a thorny issue, some experts think an emerging technology, called blockchain, which is being used by the financial industry, might form the basis of such a secure system.
Blockchain is a software-based ledger that lives in the cloud. The ledger can be shared among approved parties while it remains protected from unapproved ones (e.g., hackers) by cryptography. In other words, it provides a solution when there’s a need for information to be sourced by multiple parties but remain unchanged. If it is tampered with, the change is visible since it doesn’t match up with other parties’ copies.
It was first used with bitcoin, the digital currency, but the technology has potential for use in more situations. It could provide a way for health records to be kept in a shared ledger that all care team members can see, and yet still be secure against other prying eyes.
That could not only solve security issues but also enable the unification of medical data. Gloria Zaionz, tech guru at the Innovation Learning Network, explained that currently, different types of data are housed in different databases at different health care institutions. “There’s no one set of medical records for you,” she said. “A technology like blockchain could create a way to openly share data”—while protecting it.
Then there’s the development of health care apps for wearable electronics like smart watches, which already have shown explosive growth. In early 2016, there were at least 165,000 health-related apps for smartphones. One such app that’s experienced the strongest growth since being introduced in 2015 helps medical researchers conduct studies quickly and cheaply using smartphones or wearables. Patients who participate agree to share data such as symptoms and vital signs related to specific conditions such as asthma or epilepsy.
There’s also a surge in low-cost digital devices for consumers to monitor themselves. Analysts say the market for home monitoring of chronic conditions like diabetes is growing quickly and being embraced by health care professionals, driven partly by the need to reduce hospital readmission rates. By remotely monitoring patients, doctors can ensure they take medications and follow instructions, allowing early detection of conditions that could put them back into the hospital.
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3D printing on the rise
Another technology catching on fast is 3D printing. It’s already used to make surgical instruments and devices that can be implanted into the human body. For example, the Food and Drug Administration has cleared a titanium-made bone tether plate from an Atlanta-based company. Hospitals and medical schools are using 3D-printed models of organs to study and practice surgeries in a simulated environment. “A surgical team can create a 3D model of your surgical site and precisely plan how they would make the first incision, and it would be personalized to you,” Zaionz said. 3D printers can also make custom prosthetics and casts.
Gloria Zaionz, tech guru, discusses the future of 3D printing
Health care institutions are just beginning to experiment with virtual and augmented reality. According to consulting firm Deloitte, augmented reality glasses that display holographs of human anatomy could end the use of cadavers in medical schools. Ian Börk’s San Francisco-based startup firm FusionTech wants to develop VR and AR-based educational programs that would give patients an interactive, immersive experience to help explain a medical procedure or treatment. Börk said tracking patient engagement with the programs also can be combined with other data to improve outcomes. As of last year, though, only about 2 percent of health care institutions had VR or AR as a focus for their innovation strategy, he said. There is interest, “but the use cases and business cases aren’t there yet.”
Gloria Zaionz, tech guru, discusses the future of 3D printing
State of Healthcare: A Challenged System
The following data paints a picture of America’s costly health care system, where demographic shifts will soon drive an even greater need for service. Emerging technologies can do more than add efficiencies to the system. We can improve our health and the quality of our lives.
of American adults suffer from at least one chronic health condition
of American adults suffer from two or more
of people 65 and older will make up the U.S. population by 2040
The next generation of innovation
Technology’s full impact on health care will come when provider organizations and society at large move away from legacy models.
The first step will be when technology is embraced by both patients and medical professionals, groups that have been most skeptical in the past. “If we don’t have support of the clinical team or the patient, then we’re not going to get widespread adoption of technology,” Zaionz said. But there are signs that’s changing.
As America's largest generation, millennials are digitally savvy and demanding consumers, but they are open to new health care approaches that provide improved service with more personalization. Accenture has found, for example, that millennials value service over price when evaluating health care providers. That’s driving adoption of new technology like remote diagnostics and tele-medicine to offer care to millennials “where they want it, when they want it and how they want it,” said Kaveh Safavi, senior managing director of Accenture’s global health care business.
An artificially intelligent therapist called Tess
advising a patient.
The robotic health care companion, Mabu, sends a medication reminder.
Traditional training methods also are being transformed to educate a new generation of medical professionals. David Lenihan, chief executive at Ponce Health Sciences University in Puerto Rico, is developing a system he hopes will help alleviate the shortage of health care professionals across the globe. He analyzed medical student data for key predictors of success or failure that he’s incorporating in a tech-based framework that can identify and train groups—such as minorities—that are underrepresented at top medical schools but capable of becoming good doctors. He hopes to launch five medical schools around the world that will combine taped lectures by top medical specialists and local doctors with data analytics and mobile phone apps to create greater access for potential doctors.
“My job is to create opportunities for young people who dream of becoming doctors, and a key to that is knowing that they’ll be able to get through,” Lenihan said. “Our analytics allow us to do that.”
What’s more, because the training uses technology, the students will realize that they can collaborate globally on diagnosis. “An Ethiopian doctor may have a colleague who’s now working in Miami, and he’ll send a text asking for help with a diagnosis,” he said. “That’s how we can elevate quality of care across the globe.”