As a result of new advances in medical research, long-awaited techniques such as gene therapy and liquid biopsy could become everyday procedures; robot-assisted surgery is now a reality, and getting more sophisticated by the day.
And these changes are not going to stop anytime soon—if anything, much more is to come. While existing technologies are evolving at a breakneck pace, new trends and tools are appearing that have the potential to reshape healthcare in radical ways.
Take the rise of personal genomics: As technologies to sequence DNA become cheaper and more accessible to the wider public, patients are going to be increasingly empowered.
“You can imagine a number of cultural and organizational shifts. The centralized top-down approach to answering biological questions, like diagnosis, disease risk or best treatments, is open to be replaced by personal, even socialized decision making,” says Gordon Sanghera, CEO of Oxford Nanopore, a company producing a portable DNA sequencer.
“You can imagine specific groups of people with a shared health interest choosing to share certain data, to further group or individual goals.”
A doctor in your pocket
Data is also going to be at the core of another key trend: artificial intelligence (AI). AI researchers have already developed computer vision algorithms that can be trained—thanks to vast troves of data—to spot signs of cancer in medical images. Some companies are also planning to use AI to find new drugs (or repurpose known drugs for treating different conditions).
Juha Anjala, Co-Head of EMEA Healthcare at J.P. Morgan’s Corporate & Investment Bank, explains that AI is one of the most relevant trends shaping the future of healthcare. “We are extremely excited about the emergence of real-world, AI-driven solutions, driving innovation in both the therapeutic value chain and, just as importantly, in front-line delivery of healthcare,” he says.
“While we are careful to use revolutionary words around a sector as highly tradition-bound and regulated as healthcare, we see exciting step changes emerging not only in diagnostics and treatment, but in the efficiency of the system, changes that are required for us to be able to cope with the ever-increasing strains on the system posed by the rapid aging of the population.”
AI could even change the way patients and doctors interact: Chatbots harnessing natural language processing can dialogue with and provide quick answers to users concerned about their health.
“Medical chabots—built using sophisticated natural language processing techniques—are being used to understand not just the complexities of medicine, but also the idiosyncratic way that users express their health concerns,” explains a spokesperson for British healthcare app Babylon Health, whose chatbot has been sanctioned by Britain’s National Health Service as an alternative to the non-emergency 111 number. Patients can start a conversation on the app to describe their symptoms in order to receive an assessment of their conditions and related recommendations, or be redirected to medical professionals for more detailed answers.
“AI systems can perform semantic reasoning about treatments and diseases over literally millions of conditions and treatments, an impossible task for even the most experienced human doctor,” adds Babylon’s spokesperson.
The company is also exploring the opportunities offered by another technology trend bound to have a significant impact on the future of healthcare: wearable devices. Babylon recently launched a new feature enabling its app to be paired with a wearable fitness tracker to gather a user’s physiological data and—after crunching it with AI—to predict whether the user will develop a health condition.
“The most exciting development is in providing doctors with more accurate and rapid access to clinical data.”
“Today, personal health tracking devices allow users to monitor and analyze their health in real time. By integrating multiple sources of physiological data into our models, in the future, AI systems will be able to predict a patient’s future health state with exceptional accuracy,” the company says.
“The most exciting development is in providing doctors with more accurate and rapid access to clinical data, therefore enabling more accurate and efficient clinical diagnoses,” adds J.P. Morgan’s Anjala. “I firmly believe that the human touch that a doctor brings to the most difficult judgments as well as the personal interface they can provide to a patient are not easily replaceable with AI. However, nothing is more frustrating for a patient, or more wasteful for the healthcare system, than having patients bounced around multiple referral pathways to different specialists based on incomplete diagnoses.”
“By increasing the efficiency of diagnosis and narrowing down possible diagnoses using AI, we can streamline the patient pathway, eliminate unnecessary costs, and ask highly trained medical professionals to focus their time where it is most needed, at the patient and treatment interface.”
The doctor’s office of the future
When it comes to wearable devices, their applications go beyond constantly tracking our health over time: Wearables could also become tools for treatment, or for connecting patients with healthcare professionals.
New Jersey–based company ThirdEye, for example, has designed a pair of smart glasses that combine augmented reality (AR) and artificial intelligence to improve the lives of dementia patients.
“Patients with Alzheimer’s can look at a family member, and ThirdEye can use image recognition to identify that person and show a label with their information next to their face,” explains ThirdEye founder Nick Cherukuri. “This technology also has huge applications for visually impaired people, helping them recognize what they are looking at.” The device also has a streaming application that allows doctors to remotely visit patients in far locations, and one day it could be used in the operating room, too.
“Technology will continue to reduce the number of physical visits needed by patients.”
“Doctors can have extremely accurate overlays that are needed for surgeries: They could use AR to see exactly how to do the surgery, based on the individual patient’s biometric info,” Cherukuri says. “For instance, they will see the leg structure overlays of a given patient and get step-by-step instructions live in their field of view about how to do the surgery.” These developments do not necessarily mean that we will just stop going to see our general practitioners when we feel unwell, explains Anjala, although things will necessarily evolve.
“I think technology will continue to reduce the number of physical visits needed by patients to hospitals and outpatient surgeries. Any consultation that can be delivered electronically is a saving of time and money and a reduction in cross-infection risk,” Anjala says.
“However, there will always be the need for physical hospital infrastructure for a very simple reason: There will always be a subset of medical conditions that require physical intervention at a dedicated healthcare facility. I believe hospitals will continue to get smaller, more efficient and smarter, but I equally firmly believe they will always be around.”
When it comes to augmenting our capabilities, wearables could be only the first step. Bionics, once the stuff of sci-fi hallucinations, is now making strides—aided by advances in computer modelling and AI. What we now call prosthetics could soon be replaced by high-tech, AI-powered artificial limbs able to outperform “natural” arms and legs; and hearing aids able to filter out noise, or improve the comprehensibility of a conversation thanks to voice recognition algorithms, could paradoxically be preferable to ears. While most bionics-focused efforts—such as the research carried out at the MIT’s Center for Extreme Bionics—primarily aim to treat disabilities or other health conditions, the same technology could one day be used to enhance our bodies beyond their biological boundaries.
“When the disabled consistently run an 800-meter faster in the Paralympics than the ‘able bodied’ Olympians, when a person born deaf ends up with better hearing and pitch than most of us, we have to rethink the notion of handicapped,” says Juan Enriquez, Managing Director of life sciences–focused VC firm Excel Venture. “What used to mitigate a disability can now provide ever more enhancement. And as the benefits of various enhancements become clear, ever more people will voluntarily want to alter their bodies.”
A global transformation?
So, is the future with us already? Not quite yet. The road to innovation can be bumpy, and there are some challenges we cannot overlook.
“In Europe, we still have too many barriers between the efficiencies and funding provided by the private sector, and a public healthcare infrastructure that in many countries thinks of the profit motive as fundamentally suspect. Innovation requires seamless transfer of ideas, which in turn requires open minds and open communication,” says Anjala.
“It is not surprising that when looking at markets like China or parts of Central and Eastern Europe, or some of the initiatives being driven by the Gates Foundation in Africa, exciting new treatment models are emerging at a much more rapid pace, and without the same amount of systemic resistance to change we see in many Western European countries.”
This article is reproduced by kind permission of WIRED magazine with minor edits and must not be copied or reproduced without permission. All content is owned by WIRED and should not be interpreted as representing the views of J.P. Morgan.
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