Advances in medical technology over the past 5 years have been impressive. But even more impressive: the widespread adoption of a scant few of those technologies.
While we could list dozens of future healthcare game-changers, the picks below are five we think actually stand a chance of being adopted soon, dramatically changing the way medicine is practiced:
3D printing (prosthetics, and possibly real body parts)
Just 10 years ago, 3D printing was the stuff of just the most forward-looking science fiction views of the future. Now in widespread industry use (and even limited consumer use), 3D printers can build replacement knee joints and even prosthetic legs. But soon, 3D printers may be able to build prosthetics with biological material, including a patient’s own stem cells. By doing this, scientists can build prosthetics using biodegradable material that stem-cell-grown tissue (cartilage, etc…) can grow on top of.
Biodegradable electronic medical implants
As with 3D body part “printing”, this is another aspect of medicine where foreign implants with lifespans less than a human life, might soon be able to “uninstall” themselves by simply being absorbed into your body after a set period of time.
Researchers are working on creating electronic human implants out of super-thin circuits encased in biodegradable silk proteins.
Micro, mobile healthcare
While a number of restrictions have kept wider-spread use of mobile medical technology (especially smartphone-based) from fully flourishing in the U.S., a lot of innovation in using mobile phones for health care is happening in Africa and India. Part of the reason mobile health and telemedicine are taking off there is the relative lack of physicians in many areas of these countries.
Meanwhile, in Canada, microfluidic-based systems are allowing researchers to do clinic-level biodiagnostics with a device the size of a toaster, with results delivered in minutes, for dollars-to-pennies per test.
One example of this is Microflow, a tiny device that passes samples through a fiber-optic sheath to analyse the cause of sickness in remote communities. The Quebec-based innovation was approved for testing in orbit during 2013 on the International Space Station.
Speaking of medicine in space, there’s even a $10 million X Prize for the inventor of the first functional “tricorder” style device to drive innovation in mobile, micro healthcare forward.
[Finally!] Computerized medical records and medication orders
A 2012 report on electronic medical records pegged U.S. spending on such systems at $18 billion – up more than 14% – a significant increase from the previous year. Good news, as two similarly-recent U.S. studies noted that “computerised physician order entry” reduced error rates by 55% and 88% for rates of serious medication errors. A separate study demonstrated a 70% reduction in antibiotic-related avoidable drug errors.
NASA’s real-life “Ironman” suit could be the standard for limb rehabilitation
The Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition (IHMC) and NASA are looking to use their X1 exoskeleton suit as an assistive walking device.
By combining the technology and complex walking algorithms, the suit has the potential to produce high enough torques to allow patients with limb degeneration or damage to get help walking over a variety of terrain, and possibly even up stairs.
While itself 5 years old, William Hanson’s “The Edge of Medicine: The Technology That Will Change Our Lives” is a smart, thoughtful book full of personal experiences at the frontiers of medical technology that still – more so, even – hint at the critical mass we’re heading ever-closer to today…