The Medical Futurist | July 2, 2019
Digestible sensors? Artificial organs? Medical tricorders? Does any of these already exist, are their development in progress, or do they only appear in our imagination? The world of medical innovations is complex and diverse, full of promising technologies but also hype and marketing. That’s why we collected the most relevant trends that shape digital health in one infographic that also explains at which stage the delivery of these innovations stands, and which medical process and actor they influence. Check out the infographic here!
How to analyze digital health trends?
Together with publishing The Guide to the Future of Medicine in 2016, The Medical Futurist released an infographic about the 40 trends shaping digital health. It analyzed how promising each of the trends was, whether they would benefit patients or doctors; and if they would improve prevention, diagnostics, treatments or long-term consequences. Three years have passed by since the publication of the infographic, so it was high time to update it.
However, the basis for visually explaining the trends hasn’t changed. We still take three perspectives answering three questions to efficiently interpret the forces shaping the world of medical innovation. These are the following:
- Does the trend affect patients or healthcare professionals?
- Which stage of the delivery of healthcare and the practice of medicine is affected by the trend? Does it appear in prevention, data input and diagnostics, therapy and follow-up, or does it rather impact patient outcomes and the consequences of certain conditions?
- Is the outcome of the trend already available, is its development in progress, or does it still need some time to materialize?
For instance, along these lines, the infographic could tell that direct-to-consumer (DTC) artificial intelligence would impact prevention and diagnostics, it would mean a huge difference for patients, but its availability and applicability is further down the road. We still have to wait for a couple of years, if not decades, for DTC A.I. to appear in the family physician’s office.
As the example shows, the infographic could explain in a simple and very visual way where trends in digital health innovation stand at the moment, and that can be very useful to regulators, policy-makers, healthcare professionals, and patients. Now, let’s see a couple of examples in details.
In silico clinical trials will revolutionize drug testing
According to the infographic, in silico clinical trials will impact medical professionals’ work, especially in the area of patient outcomes and consequences, however, we have to get there – and it may take several years as completely simulated clinical trials are not feasible with current technology and understanding of biology. That’s why they are marked by yellow.
What does the concept of an in silico clinical trial mean? It’s basically an individualized computer simulation used in the development or regulatory evaluation of a medicinal product, device, or intervention. Imagine if we could test thousands of new potential drugs on billions of virtual patient models in minutes? What would it take to achieve such a capability? At the very least, virtual patients must almost perfectly mimic the physiology of the target patients, with all the variations that actual patients show.
HumMod is one of the most advanced simulations in this respect. It provides a top-down model of human physiology from whole organs to individual molecules. It features more than 1,500 equations and 6,500 variables such as bodily fluids, circulation, electrolytes, hormones, metabolism, and skin temperature. HumMod aims to simulate how human physiology works, and claims to be the most sophisticated mathematical model of human physiology ever created. HumMod has been in development for decades and it is still far from completion. It may take decades to get there.
Nanorobots in the blood are still rather human fantasy
Looking at the infographic, it becomes visible that nanorobots are marked by red. That means that nanoparticles and nanodevices one day may become reality and may operate as precise drug delivery systems, cancer treatment tools or tiny surgeons, however, at the moment we are very far from it. They would highly impact the way therapies would be carried out and how medical professionals would conduct follow-up activities, but it largely remains to be seen how it could be implemented in practice.
But let there be no mistake, there are ongoing experiments with nanorobots swimming in blood. For example, researchers from the Max Planck Institute have been experimenting with exceptionally micro-sized – smaller than a millimeter – robots that literally swim through your bodily fluids; and could be used to deliver drugs or other medical relief in a highly targeted way. These scallop-like microbots are designed to swim through non-Newtonian fluids, like your bloodstream, around your lymphatic system, or across the slippery goo on the surface of your eyeballs.
Medical drones are for real
For a moment, let our feet again touch the ground. While it will be far away in the future when nanorobots might deliver drugs through our veins to the precise place where the medication should have its effect, drones already deliver medical supplies across regions with no infrastructure, to remote areas, or in emergency situations. As medical drones already improve the work of medical professionals, especially in the treatment and follow-up area, they are indicated with the color green on the infographic.
Just take the example of UPS, Matternet, and WakeMed Hospital in the US. In March 2019, they announced a partnership so that UPS started delivering medical samples via unmanned drones at WakeMed hospital’s various facilities. With the approval of the Federal Aviation Administration and North Carolina’s department of transportation, UPS and Matternet conduct routine daily flights that transport medical samples. Previously, WakeMed relied on courier cars, which were subject to road delays, so the introduction of medical drones will likely optimize transportation processes. As other examples, we could also mention the work that Zipline is doing in both Rwanda, Kenya, or the United States.
All-in-all, the infographic represents the way we see the development of key trends and innovations in the process of delivering care. And it might be a useful resource for key stakeholders in medicine and health delivery who are in a position to shape regulations, policies, or the architecture of medical care on lower levels for many years to come.