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Medical Technology in 2020: Trends and Innovations
A digital revolution is sweeping the world of medicine, and it promises to transform the way healthcare is developed and delivered on virtually every level. Driven by advances in cloud computing, artificial intelligence, and the growing use of wearable technologies, the new world of medicine is defined by its embrace of technologies once thought to be science fiction, not science fact: robots that perform surgery, smart pills that transmit information from inside the body, augmented and virtual reality apps that offer new ways of visualizing the world, and more.
According to a recent report from Deloitte, more than 500,000 medical technologies are available in 2020.
These innovative applications and digital tools work together to create a digital ecosystem called the Internet of Medical Things, where devices, data and smart machines work with both patients and providers to deliver quality, personalized healthcare on demand. The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the demand for much of the medical world’s newest tech, but these innovations will continue to redefine the healthcare industry in 2020 and beyond.
Digital Innovation Reshapes the World of Medicine
“Digital transformation” is a broad term that refers to the process of using digital technologies to create new processes for improving the delivery of goods, services and customer experience – or to modify old protocols for greater efficiency. Making the shift to an interconnected digital ecosystem that combines on-premises systems with an array of cloud-based tools can force businesses and companies to completely re-think goals and strategies, and replace or rework their existing processes in order to function in this new digital reality. Digital transformation affects virtually every industry and profession, but some, like the worlds of finance and manufacturing, have been faster to embrace the digital future than others – including the healthcare industry.
In recent years, though, the world of medicine has seen an explosion of new technologies aimed at developing a more patient-centered model of care, and improving the delivery of essential treatments and therapies. And the COVID-19 pandemic that swept the globe in the early months of 2020 only accelerated this transformation, as healthcare organizations of all kinds struggled to find the tools and procedures that would allow them to safely deliver essential care and therapies at a distance. The technologies that have been fast tracked to accommodate the pandemic crisis join the many innovative new tools and applications that make up the Internet of Medical Things.
The Internet of Medical Things: Devices, Apps, and the Cloud
The widespread embrace of digital technologies in all areas of life has created the Internet of Things – a world in which millions of devices ranging from smartphones to smart houses and cities are in constant communication, exchanging information and taking actions without the need for human input. The age of the Internet of Things, or IoT, is made possible by the widespread adoption of cloud-based data management, advances in artificial intelligence, and the seemingly endless stream of digital devices such as smartphones, watches, and wellness apps.
The Internet of Medical Things is a subset of the Internet of Things. The IoMT pertains exclusively to the medical world and the devices and applications that link everyone in that world. It’s a constantly connected digital ecosystem of medical devices, cloud and on-premises software apps, and the healthcare systems that use them to collect, analyze and share data.
In that way, the Internet of Medical Things is no different than the larger Internet of Things that inspired it. But one factor sets the IoMT apart from its parent, the IoT – the far-reaching applications of sensor-based tools for remote monitoring, such as wearable devices and the apps that support them. These tools make it possible to monitor patients and deliver care from anywhere, at any time, through technologies similar to those people already use every day.
Many of the tools that run the Internet of Medical Things are also in use outside it. Video calling, wearable fitness and activity trackers, and Internet connected smartphones and tablets are part of the everyday digital landscape for many people. But the medical world is transforming these kinds of devices and applications into key tools for things like managing health conditions, monitoring medication compliance, and supporting treatment plans.
“Big data” is also a key part of the IoMT. The healthcare industry is now responsible for about 50 percent of all data stored in the cloud. That data comes from a wide range of sources, including pharmaceutical research, electronic health records, and the daily record keeping of millions of clinics, hospitals and other health related facilities.
With the support of advanced artificial intelligence and deep machine learning, this data can be mined and shared virtually instantly. Those capabilities allow researchers to share information with colleagues around the world and conduct clinical trials in a virtual environment that streamlines the development of new medications. Healthcare providers can have immediate access to patient records at every point of service. Massive databases can be mined for insights that guide the adoption of new protocols and procedures.
The final pillar of the IoMT is artificial intelligence, or AI – a computer science field dedicated to creating “smart” machines that can make predictions and decisions independent of human input. In medicine, AI technologies can visually map the human body, allow surgeons to operate using robotic helpers, monitor body processes internally, and much more. To do this, AI algorithms are “trained” in a process called machine learning to recognize patterns and draw conclusions, and to follow programmed processes more precisely than humans can do. Now, artificial intelligence and the other technologies that create the Internet of Medical Things are driving the most important trends and innovations in medical technology today.
Precision Diagnostics With AI and Cloud Databases
The combination of artificial intelligence and large databases of medical information in the cloud is transforming the field of diagnostics, making it easier than ever to quickly identify factors contributing to a wide range of health conditions, and to accurately diagnose even very rare diseases. An algorithm trained to identify a particular set of biomarkers such as cancer cells can scan images and return results faster than humans can, and it can identify patterns and objects the human eye might miss. AI-powered applications can also search extremely large data sets for specific search terms, such as the symptoms of an unusual condition.
Computerized diagnostic tools can also derive insights from collected data about a specific patient, which could include information uploaded from a wellness device or home monitor. Crunching all that data could lead to a precise diagnosis of a person’s health problem, predict outcomes based on the current situation, or match patients with appropriate treatments or doctors. For example, the heart rate and blood pressure recorded by a wellness tracker like Fitbit could become part of a larger data set that includes patient records and other relevant information. Based on all those sources, a diagnostic AI could predict the likelihood of a heart attack within the next year, or five.
Robotics for Surgery, Patient Care and Companionship
Tireless workers who never need to sleep or eat, robots are a science fiction staple. But robotics is also transforming medical care in a variety of ways, from assisting in surgeries to administering medications and even acting as a companion/monitor for someone living alone.
Robotic surgical assistants can be used in minimally invasive surgeries such as endoscopic procedures that involve threading a small catheter into a blood vessel. Under the direction of a surgeon, these devices can perform procedures with more precision and control than a human physician could, delivering the same results hundreds of times with no variations or errors. These devices, called clinical robotic surgical systems, consist of multiple mechanical arms fitted with cameras and surgical instruments that carry out the procedure under the direction of a surgeon.
On hospital wards, robotic helpers can be programmed to deliver meals and medications, or transfer patients from wheelchairs to beds. Equipped with artificial intelligence systems that can interact with humans and make independent decisions, these robot aides perform a variety of essential chores while freeing up nursing staff for essential patient care.
Robots can also help with psychosocial issues such as loneliness, or track activity and medications for populations such as seniors and disabled people who live alone. Tech companies around the world have been working to design a range of robotic companions and assistants in forms ranging from cute, sci-fi style robots to puppies and giant bears.
Augmented and Virtual Reality Platforms
Among the most intriguing trends in today’s digital medicine landscape is the use of sophisticated imaging and AI technologies to enhance the “real world” as we know it – or to create another, more appealing one. Although both augmented reality and virtual reality applications create an experience that is different from the one our five senses show us, they work in very different ways. But both these technologies have earned a place in the world of healthcare.
Augmented reality has a number of direct applications in healthcare. AR technologies use a variety of imaging tools, sensors and cameras to create an overlay of digital information on real physical objects, so that this information augments, or adds to, what we receive with the usual five senses.
For example, 3D digital overlay showing the location of bones and organs inside the body can be used to train healthcare workers, or to help improve accuracy during surgery by projecting an actual image of a patient’s internal structures onto the body. Similar tools can be used to educate patients about a particular medical condition or surgical procedure.
For many patients, having blood drawn can be a nightmare of repeated needle sticks. But new, augmented reality technologies are also making it easier to find veins and reduce patients’ discomfort. Products such as Accuvein can project a real-time map of a patient’s veins on the skin for easier identification of blood draw sites or for checking the health of veins and arteries in both children and adults.
Virtual reality takes augmented reality several steps further. VR technologies completely immerse users in a simulated, three-dimensional environment complete with sounds and other sensations. And although the healthcare space has been relatively slow to adopt these technologies, they now play a key role in situations ranging from pre-operative planning to pain management and even providing entertainment and stress relief for hospital patients.
Surgical teams can use VR technologies to create virtual models of a patient’s body, which can be used to plan surgical strategies and rehearse the actual operation in a 3D environment. These technologies can also help medical students learn how to perform procedures and conduct examinations.
Virtual reality applications can also support the treatment of mental health issues such as PTSD or phobias by creating realistic but controllable scenarios. These scenarios can help to desensitize a patient to the distressing stimuli that trigger a phobia or PTSD response. In the same way, VR can help with addiction recovery, by exposing patients to scenarios that could trigger a relapse. VR can also help patients with brain damage caused by a stroke or head trauma by creating virtual environments where they can practice regaining mobility, coordination and balance.
Immersing yourself in a pleasant virtual environment can take your mind off your surroundings, and that can also play an important role in healing. VR platforms have been shown to help manage chronic pain when medication and other therapies are not effective, and some hospitals are now making VR applications and games available to patients as a way to lower stress and reduce boredom. With customized VR experiences, patients can even feel as if they’re at home or in some other place they enjoy.
Wearables, Smart Pills and At-Home Sensors
Advances in wearable health monitors, activity trackers and data collecting sensors people can use at home are a defining feature of the Internet of Medical Things. These devices are a cornerstone of the burgeoning field of telehealth, which allows patients to connect with doctors and manage health conditions using readily available consumer devices such as smartphones, tablets and smartwatches.
Today, just about anyone can buy a fitness or wellness tracker, or a smartwatch with tracker functions. Worn like a watch or necklace, or clipped to the belt or the body, wellness tracking devices can collect data such as heart rate, oxygen levels, blood pressure, movement and more. Most come with an app that allows users to upload data collected by the device, connect with a community of other users, and get targeted support for a variety of fitness and wellness goals.
In the world of the IoMT, these devices can help patients and their doctors monitor and manage a variety of health conditions without the need for in-person visits. A recent study by UCLA Medical Center and Cedars-Sinai Hospital found that the popular fitness tracker Fitbit was an effective tool for helping patients with ischemic heart disease manage their condition at home. But more sophisticated, medical-grade devices are also available to collect detailed information crucial for managing serious health conditions.
Medical-grade sensors, monitors and wearable tech can collect data constantly and send it to a patient’s healthcare team anytime, from anywhere – and doctors can respond virtually instantly via telemedicine portals that users can load on a smartphone or other device. These technologies can help to deliver quality healthcare to people in rural areas and other circumstances that make it difficult to see a doctor in person — such as during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Home monitoring devices are especially important for patients with chronic conditions such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease. They’re also helpful for monitoring high-risk pregnancy or assessing a patient’s at-home recovery after surgery. But home tracking devices can do even more. Because even basic fitness trackers can sense and record movement, wearable medical and wellness devices can also be used to monitor physical activity, including changes in gait, balance and walking speed.
These metrics can be useful for assessing and monitoring neurological conditions like Parkinson’s disease or Alzheimer’s disease, which can affect a patient’s mobility and coordination. They can also alert doctors to a change in someone’s level of activity, or to an increased risk of falling. Because wearables and the apps associated with them create two-way communication between patient and provider, doctors can use the data to make direct changes in a patient’s medications and treatment plans.
But some new technologies, such as Proteus and CorTemp, take at-home monitoring to a new level with “smart pills” capable of monitoring a patient’s condition from inside the body. Designed to look just like a typical tablet or capsule, these pills contain microscopic sensors or nanoparticles. When swallowed, they transmit data such as a person’s core temperature or the levels of certain substances in the bloodstream directly to healthcare providers, who use the information to adjust medications and make other recommendations.
Also called “digiceuticals,” digital therapeutics combine elements of augmented reality and other digital technologies in apps, games and programs that target specific health outcomes. Used independently or along with other kinds of therapies, digital therapeutic technologies can support compliance with treatment plans and offer novel solutions for “unmet needs” – patients whose issues are not being addressed by traditional medical approaches. Along with offering practical tips, inspiration and guidance from healthcare providers, digital therapeutics can connect patients with a supportive community and personalized coaching from qualified professionals.
Bluestar from WellDoc is a widely used digital therapeutic tool for diabetes management. Users can download the Bluestar app and get daily coaching, support and recommendations for activities, diet and medication. Because Bluestar works with a patient’s existing treatment plan, it can be customized to track daily medications, glucose levels and other metrics to help with the day to day management of both Type I and Type II diabetes.
Digiceuticals can also help with managing conditions as diverse as depression, addiction and chronic pain. Kaia, an app for people with ongoing back pain, offers recommendations and tools for managing pain, along with one-on-one virtual sessions with accredited coaches and physical therapists. Although some digital therapeutics are available only by prescription, Kaia requires no prescription, and it’s covered by many health plans.
Personalized Treatment – Anywhere, Anytime
The trends and innovative digital tools that are revolutionizing the way healthcare is produced and delivered in 2020 and beyond all serve a common goal – the creation of a new paradigm of highly customized, patient centered care driven by advances in artificial intelligence and cloud-based computing.
Advanced, AI powered diagnostics and telemedicine portals make it possible to provide quality healthcare targeted to a patient’s individual needs and circumstances, with round the clock access to doctors and other professionals. With tools such as wearable monitors, digital therapeutics and augmented reality platforms, patients can become active partners in managing their conditions.
For healthcare providers, the trends leading to a digital future also open doors for a new approach to medicine. With AI powered diagnostics and access to the cloud’s large medical databases, providers can diagnose and treat even rare conditions quickly and accurately. Full-featured telehealth portals, easy to use monitoring apps and the tools of augmented and virtual reality can help doctors provide quality care regardless of distance or circumstances, and innovative robotics make surgical procedures safer and faster.
The technological trends and innovations of 2020 are only a part of the larger digital transformation in healthcare. But the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated those changes, forcing healthcare organizations to pivot quickly to a “hands off” model of care that required digital tools for connecting remotely and the active participation of patients willing to use those tools for managing their health on their own.
The Internet of Medical Things has provided the tools these organizations need to deliver services remotely during the crisis. And now, those solutions and other innovative tools that combine smart devices and cloud based technologies are creating the foundation of a new, digitally driven model that’s reshaping the world of medicine in 2020 and beyond.