Early this year, I was swept back into the shuffle of domestic travel with a family vacation in Colorado, and speeches in Arizona, Florida, and Georgia. After almost two years stateside, I recently returned to international travel with a business trip to Azerbaijan, and soon, I’ll be visiting Iceland.
If you’ve attempted foreign travel at all since borders reopened, you’ve probably experienced the maze of frustrations around obtaining and sharing COVID test results and vaccination status to safely pass customs. Each country has its own set of rules and documentation required. Different sets of data, apps, and requirements confuse travelers and leave many reluctant to board a plane overseas.
What if there were a trusted and reliable way to tap your phone to pull up vaccine or test reports while traveling in any country? You could give customs officials permission to see your latest test result, confirm that the person traveling with you really is your child, and show whether or not you have ever been diagnosed with COVID. You would immediately have access to multiple sets of data, from different sources, with one protected passcode.
The beginnings of this system are already being enabled by blockchain technology—a system that creates a log of all your existing medical records so that you can securely access and share sensitive data at any time. Blockchain is one of 10 emerging technologies that are driving the future of healthcare in the direction of precision medicine, away from a one-size-fits-all approach and toward a seamless, personalized, and empowering healthcare experience.
In the era of precision medicine, patients receive care tailored to their genetics, lifestyle, and environment. Doctors have access to the latest treatments, training, and robotic assistance to deliver care.
These are the 10 technologies most likely to revolutionize and shape the future of health:
Sequencing the first human genome took over a decade-long international effort that cost $3 billion USD. Today, that same process can be completed in under 24 hours for $1,000 USD. Enhancements in genetic sequences will fuel precision medicine, making DNA sequencing part of routine care and offering individualized treatment based on a person’s genetic makeup.
CRISPR-Cas9 gene therapy takes it one step further, making it possible for researchers to edit genomes with the possibility of treating and eradicating certain diseases.
2. 3D printing
In 2017, a woman in India avoided paralysis from a tuberculosis infection by having her spine replaced with a 3D-printed version. Imagine a world in which every disease or defect could be cured simply by substituting the infected body part with a new, 3D-printed replica.
While researchers are still a distance away from being able to print any body part on command, about 40 different printed organs are nearing clinical trials. The advancement of 3D-bioprinting, at the intersection of medicine, stem cell research, and 3D printing, presents the opportunity to reduce the duration and cost of transplants and prosthetics to save and transform millions of lives.
3. Lab-grown organs
In the United States, there are currently over 90,000 people on the kidney transplant waiting list. The average time to find a donor is three to five years, sometimes longer. Once a donor is found, the average wait time for a transplant is three to six months.
In the future, lab-grown organs could put an end to the shortage of organs for transplant. With the goal of growing other body parts, researchers have discovered a method to adhere protein messages to a scaffold of collagen—a connective tissue found in our bodies. As this technology evolves, it will reduce the cost and waiting time to receive replacement organs.
4. Artificial Intelligence
Many companies are currently harnessing the power of artificial intelligence (AI) to make sense of and utilize the massive amounts of healthcare data available to us. Online platforms, such as CrowdMed and the Human Diagnosis Project, combine the knowledge of thousands of doctors and medical providers to expedite the time it takes to diagnose and treat diseases. The future of AI offers better, faster, and cheaper testing and monitoring and a way to scale the insights of a limited number of doctors to serve more patients globally.
If you wear an Apple Watch, you’ve already been exposed to the system of wearables, sensors, and trackers available to digitize your health. Healthcare devices represent one of the fastest-growing sectors of the Internet of Things (IoT) market.
The value of this sector—the Internet of Medical Things (IoMT)—is predicted to grow from $30.8 billion in 2021 to $187.6 billion in 2028. IoMT enables communication between all of these devices and healthcare systems. This has the potential to significantly reduce the time and distance between predicting medical intervention and delivering when it is needed.
The inability to securely share and access sensitive patient data has encumbered the medical industry to seamlessly treat patients. Medical data is usually segmented—your primary care physician, for example, has access to some of your medical data, but not the same data that specialists like a cardiologist or OB-GYN has access to, and vice versa. With Blockchain, a verified chronicle of all your electronic health records presents a solution to allow health systems to communicate and improve the insurance process.
7. Augmented and Virtual Reality
Virtual reality (VR) is already beginning to transform education and training for healthcare professionals. With VR, medical situations can be simulated, so that students can practice and prepare for real-life scenarios. Surgeons can walk through a planned surgery in advance. Immersive VR entertainment also offers a distraction for patients during pain management, physical therapy, or surgeries where anesthesia is contraindicated.
Doctors have been using mini swallowable cameras since 2001 to take pictures of the gastrointestinal tract. In 2012 the FDA approved a silicon chip that can be embedded into pharmaceutical drugs to monitor whether or not people are taking their prescription medications.
Swallowable nanorobots can deliver drugs to the point in the body where they are needed. In the near future, they will swim through the body to identify the first signs of infections, cancer, or other disorders and provide treatment at the exact internal site where it is needed.
Outside of the body, robots are assisting with surgeries, delivering patient care, and disinfecting medical facilities. Robots can’t get sick or risk infection, so they are perfect candidates to clean and prepare treatment rooms. Medical staff who would have spent time handing out medications, unpackaging supplies, or disinfecting surfaces have more time to spend taking care of their patients.
Elon Musk is at the forefront of innovators who envision a future in which human brains interface directly with computers. His company, Neuralink, claims that implanting a chip into the brain will cure disorders and give humans the ability to compete with rapidly progressing AI.
Imagine the future implications if you had the ability to instantly turn your thoughts into action… Today, deep brain stimulation via implantable devices is being used to treat pain, Parkinson’s disease and other neurological disorders.
These technologies are not examples from a science fiction novel; all of them are already being tested and used today. Scientists in China, using CRISPR gene editing, produced healthy babies from two same-sex mice. In 2019, researchers 3D-bioprinted a human heart the size of a grape. In labs, scientists have been growing human ears, reproductive organs, and even a mini brain.
Cosmetics company L’Oreal is successfully cultivating human skin to reduce testing on animals. AI helps review x-rays to reduce errors in hospitals. A web of wearables and tracking devices empowers consumers with more visibility into their health statistics.
The country of Estonia processes 95% of healthcare billing on the blockchain. Doctors are being trained using VR, and nanorobots enter our bodies to deliver drugs when and where they are required. On the outside, robots assist in hospitals and, like RUDY the robot who works with the elderly, care for patients.
It won’t be long before we see the fusion of many of these technologies in the future of precision medicine. Genetics, IoMT, and AI will provide deeper understanding of our health information, prevention, and treatment. AR/VR, blockchain, nanotechnologies and robots will completely transform the doctor’s office and hospital experience. In a new frontier—one that will require continuous ethical questioning—3D printing, lab grown organs, and implantable devices will give us the power to redesign our bodies and our lives.
Photo by Artem Podrez from Pexels