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The shape of things to come in digital healthcare

In little more than a generation, the increasingly rapid pace of technological change has hurtled us into a digital age where the internet, PCs, laptops, tablets and smartphones with hundreds of times more computing capability and memory capacity than the on-board computer used on the first moon landing have become the take-for-granted essential trappings of everyday life.

Quite rightly so, the healthcare sector has a justified reputation for seizing every opportunity offered by progressive advances in technology to enhance its diagnostic capabilities and improve patient care … everything from the life-saving heart pacemaker to the sophisticated MRI, DXA and ultrasound scanning systems we use at The Edinburgh Clinic.  So let’s take a closer look at the technologies in development today with the potential to bring major benefits to health professionals and patients alike in a tomorrow that might not be as far away as you may think...

Wearable technology

This is the collective buzz phrase that describes a revolution in the application of digital technology which, although still in its infancy, we can see as having a particular impact on the healthcare sector.  For example, imagine walking around in everyday clothing that will constantly monitor such things as blood pressure and heart function.

Similarly, this same technology can be used in a baby’s bedtime suit to keep a constant eye on their physical condition as they sleep with any sign of distress automatically triggering an alert call to the parent’s or carer’s smartphone – surely a great step forward in reducing the incidences of cot death.

Contact lenses are now being developed for diabetics that can measure the wearer’s glucose levels in tears and transmit warning signals if the level exceeds certain thresholds, potentially saving the world’s 400 million diabetes sufferers the chore of having to take test blood samples up to 10 times a day as an essential indication on how best to regulate their insulin doses.

Google Glass

There can be no better example of how wearable technology is being applied in the health sector than Google Glass.  Currently being trialled by pioneering surgeons in various parts of the world, Google Glass is worn like an ordinary pair of spectacles but with a micro-computer incorporating a camera, GPS, microphone and Bluetooth embedded in the glass above the right eye.

Voice command activated, this allows the surgeon to call up patient records without taking his or her eyes off the operating table, stream real-time video images of the procedure to colleagues and students in remote locations and record critical moments during the operation as seen through the eyes of the surgeon for future reference – particularly important if the procedure becomes the subject of a subsequent law suit.

Microchip Modelling in Clinic Trials

Microchip modelling is being introduced as a way of reducing the use of live animals in clinical trials – but the benefits offered by this exciting new technology don’t stop there!

As microchips can be programmed to provide a much closer match to human tissue, cell types and key organs, clinicians can get a far more accurate picture of how our bodies react to certain diseases and treatments.  In fact, doctors and scientists employing complex combinations of microchips in this way have actually been able to reconstruct organs like human lungs.

3D Printing of Organic Materials

Three dimensional printing is now an established technology which, given sufficient development time to ensure the safety and integrity of the end product, could become a real game-changer in tackling many of the key health issues facing us today.

Embryonic stem cells have already been successfully printed in laboratory conditions, opening up the possibility of large scale stem cell replication to test drugs and aid in the growth of new organs.  Scientists have also been successful in printing blood vessels and cardiac tissue that actually beats like a real heart.  Printed cancer cells could be grown on live tissue for further study and drug testing in the ongoing search for an ultimate cure.  And as the development of 3D printing continues, it is not unrealistic to envisage it being used to create entire new organs – a solution, perhaps, to the continuing worldwide shortfall in the supply of desperately needed donor organs for transplant.

We hope this article has provided an intriguing insight into the many ways the inexorable advance of technology is being embraced and harnessed by the healthcare profession for the greater good of all.  New developments and possibilities are emerging every day … so watch this space!

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Date: 13/02/2014
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