A wide variety of digital innovations are revolutionizing healthcare — and technology in medicine is here to stay. How are these changes impacting the delivery of care, and what skills are needed to succeed in this bold new world?
The Changing Landscape of Technology in Medicine
It’s no secret that, as a society, technology has become a part of our everyday lives. In fact, almost 60 percent of American adults own a smartphone, and 42 percent of that same population (American adults) owns a tablet computer.
Though technology has been permeating almost every aspect of our lives, until recent years the medical field has been largely unaffected by the rapid pace of technological innovation that is characteristic of the Digital Age. However, this is changing. As geneticist Eric Topol puts it in his book, The Creative Destruction of Medicine, “Medicine is about to go through its biggest shakeup in history.”
This ubiquity of technology is beginning to extend into the medical field. Advances in medical technology are changing medicine by giving physicians more information — as well as better, more specific data. Topol has this to say about the changing landscape of medical technology:
“This is a new era of medicine, in which each person can be near fully defined at the individual level, instead of how we (have previously) practiced medicine at a population level. We are each unique human beings, but until now there was no way to determine a relevant metric like blood pressure around the clock while a person is sleeping, or at work, or in the midst of an emotional upheaval. This represents the next frontier of the digital revolution, finally getting to the most important but heretofore insulated domain: preserving our health.”
New Medical Technology: Innovations
So just what are these new advances in technology? According to Topol, they apply to almost every aspect of health.
“We can remotely and continuously monitor each heartbeat, moment-to-moment blood pressure readings, the rate and depth of breathing, body temperature, oxygen concentration in the blood, glucose, brain waves, activity, mood — all the things that make us tick,” he says. “For the first time, we can digitize humans.”
The main purpose of all of this innovation is the gathering of information, leading to more specific, personalized care. Tech professionals in the medical field can assemble data about individuals from genome sequencing, imaging and biosensors, then integrate it with traditional medical methods to find the best approach to patient care.
The following are just a few of the many innovations that have occurred in medical technology over the past year alone. Some of these leading technologies are still being developed, while others are slowly being introduced into mainstream medical practice.
- The modern hospital experience: Several medical technology companies are looking to update hospital stays to keep pace with the needs of modern patients. For example, NXT Health is improving room design to “eliminate wasteful redundancy and technological clutter that plague many modern healthcare facilities.” To more easily integrate changing technology, these new rooms would feature interchangeable parts that are easily adapted to the specific situation of a patient. The seamless design would have a minimal impact on facility operations while increasing patient comfort and connectivity.
- Surgery simulation: The Roswell Park Cancer Institute has partnered with the University of Buffalo’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences to create the Robotic Surgery Simulator (RoSS). This innovation allows real-world views of surgeries while eliminating the need for a live environment to train aspiring surgeons. It gives these medical professionals the space to experiment in a simulated environment, rather than risking making mistakes on real patients.
- Streamlined lab testing: The lab testing process could be changing very soon, due to companies like Theranos, who have “designed a way to run tests with microsamples of blood, one-thousandth the size of a typical blood draw.” This practice will provide a better patient experience while reducing the cost of many widely used lab tests.
- Mitochondrial DNA transfer: Though the first successful transplants of mitochondrial DNA occurred in the late 90s, these procedures are currently becoming a more potentially viable option for the reduction of gene related diseases. The process, in which “two parents contribute normally to in vitro fertilization and a third party contributes the mitochondrial DNA,” is being perfected so that its usefulness will soon be difficult to deny.
- Cloud-based data and software: Applications like referralMD help healthcare providers create referrals digitally and reach millions of patients and providers who are in search of treatment options. The current, paper method of referrals causes almost 50 percent of patient referrals to never actually result in doctor’s visits. This present gap in care “causes patients to lose treatment (and) the healthcare facility to lose money.” Software innovations like these are part of the relatively new field of health informatics, which aims to collect, store, analyze and present health data in a digital format.
The Future of Healthcare Technology
With widespread innovations like these affecting patient care practices, it is not surprising that the way medical records and information are stored and shared is changing as well. These technological advancements are cost-effective and improve the ability of medical professionals to diagnose and treat health issues of all kinds. Three of the main changes that are revolutionizing the future of healthcare are electronic medical records, health information exchange and ICD-10.
Electronic Health Records (EHRs)
Over the past few decades, both medical billing and coding have switched from being paper-based to a computerized format. Electronic medical records offer a wide variety of benefits to the medical field. As Milt Freudenheim, a New York Times contributor, points out, “They can make healthcare more efficient and less expensive, and improve the quality of care by making patients’ medical history easily accessible to all who treat them.”
EHRs have also gained federal funding: The government has given $6.5 billion in incentives. With support from both the public and private sector, doctors benefit from the introduction of EHRs as well. They can access “all the care a patient has ever received and can figure out possible illnesses,” while streamlining the treatment process and preventing unnecessary costs.
Health Information Exchange (HIE)
HIE gives health care professionals and patients the information access they need. It allows for the secure sharing of patient medical history between physicians of all specialties, while also allowing patients to access data about their own health. Because health information exchange creates improved communication and care quality, it provides “safer, more effective care” based on the needs of each specific patient. According to HealthIT.gov, “new payment approaches that stress care coordination and federal financial incentives are all driving the interest and demand for health information exchange.”
ICD-10 and Medical Billing
The International Statistical Classification of Diseases, or ICD-10, is the latest innovation when it comes to diagnostic tools. It is essentially an enhanced medical coding system that includes over 14,000 different codes globally, as well as additional subcategories. This means that patients and insurance companies can be billed for services and procedures in a highly specific way. And in the United States, ICD-10 classification is even more extensive — it includes additional codes that push the total to 76,000 ways that medical procedure claims can be processed and paid. This beneficial tool allows countries to retrieve and store all diagnostic information in a streamlined, efficient way. However, healthcare facilities must install new software and train staff to follow ICD-10 guidelines. This is another area where trained health informatics professionals are invaluable.
The Vital Role of Health Informatics
None of this tech innovation would be possible without the field of health informatics. With the rapid development of new technologies, “formidable health information systems” are required in order for medical practices and facilities to keep up. And as technology becomes more and more necessary for the effective functioning of our healthcare system, people proficient in the field of health informatics are more in-demand than ever. The interdisciplinary field combines information technology, health and communications and aims to improve patient care quality and interaction between medical professionals. To put it simply, health informatics is the science that makes the transition to digital healthcare practices possible. Trained professionals in this discipline work to “collect, store, analyze and present health data in a digital format.”
The new approaches to medical coding, health information exchange and billing outlined above require specialized databases that are customized to meet the needs of each physician and medical practice. Professionals in the health informatics field also ensure that patient data is secure. This involves server configuration and assigning strict access credentials. All of these new and emerging requirements fall under the domain of health informatics.
Health Informatics Education and Outlook
Job growth and demand in the health informatics field reflects this newfound importance. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 22 percent increase in employment through the year 2022, a rate that is much faster than the national average for all occupations. Individuals who are considering a career in this in-demand field often choose to pursue undergraduate study in health informatics, enabling them to be a valuable part of today’s rapidly changing healthcare system.
At King University, students can pursue a comprehensive health informatics education. The online program features a curriculum based in key healthcare administration, information technology and health informatics topics. It qualifies graduates to be part of the transformation of healthcare by teaching them to analyze, design, implement and evaluate the information and communication systems that are both still being developed and currently in use. The program of study includes courses in:
- Healthcare organization
- Information systems
- Project management
- Ethics and security
- Quality improvement
Take the Next Step with King University
To learn more about the online health informatics program at King University, visit our program page.
Major challenges and opportunities will arise in the health sector in the future. Research in technology that can be applied to this sector is being carried out by several UPC teams.
Although sophisticated medical technology is already available in health systems in developed countries, further advances are constantly being made. As a result of the addition of medical nanotechnology to existing knowledge of molecular and cellular biology, it seems likely that new, more personalised, more accurate and more rapid diagnostic techniques will be devised in the future, as well as new treatments that are also more personalised and promote regeneration of the organism.
Clearly, as areas of research such as biomaterials or tissue engineering are developed for use in regenerative medicine, the range of opportunities will increase dramatically. Josep Anton Planell, the director of the Institute for Bioengineering of Catalonia (IBEC), which was formed by the UB, the UPC and the Generalitat (Government of Catalonia) and has its headquarters in Barcelona Science Park, considers that “in the future, it will be possible to design intelligent biomaterials that, when placed where damaged tissue needs to be regenerated, will be able to stimulate the stem cells to do what we want them to do”. However, more knowledge is needed to perfect the process. He states, “We are beginning to understand which biochemical, biophysical or mechanical signals activate cells to regenerate tissue. To be able to intervene, therefore, we first need to be able to quantify and assess the signals that generate the cell response and form a language.”
These processes occur at the molecular level or involve very low intensity stimuli. However, nanotechnology is contributing to the emergence of the tools needed to study them. Such technology includes lasers to identify the proteins expressed in the cell membrane, nanosensors that determine whether the cell is uptaking or excreting an ion such as potassium or calcium, biosensors to detect cancer markers, and atomic force microscopes that enable material to be handled on nanometre and nanonewton scales. In short, a wide range of diagnostic systems have been designed that can more accurately detect the physiology and localization of a specific disease.
The Technical Research Centre for Dependency Care and Autonomous Living (CETpD), which is attached to the UPC and located in Vilanova i la Geltrú, has been working in the health sector for almost nine years. Its research is focused mainly on the field of dependency and care for the chronically ill. Andreu Català, the director of the Knowledge Engineering Research Group (GREC), stated that: “We do not aim to replace carers, but we do believe that technology can be a very useful complement, as it can help dependent people to feel more comfortable and more secure. Our aim is to develop innovative technology to improve their quality of life.”
From the beginning, one of the main lines of work has involved analysing and monitoring human movement. Inertial sensors have been developed that can detect falls and characterise different types of movement. This research has applications in monitoring and preventing the risk of falls in elderly people or people recovering from a fracture.
Currently, the CETpD is participating in two research projects on Parkinson’s disease: one Ministry of Health study and one European project. Parkinson’s disease is the second most significant neurodegenerative disease in the world, after Alzheimer’s. It affects over four million people. The first project is titled Monitoring the Mobility of Parkinson’s Patients for Therapeutic Purposes (MOMOPA), and is focused on detecting and monitoring various stages in the activity of people with this disease. The other project is titled Home-Based Empowered Living for Parkinson’s Disease Patients (HELP). Its objective is to design a system for administrating the exact drug dose that a patient needs for his or her daily activities by means of an infusion pump, which is controlled by a movement sensor.
Medical check-ups at home
There is growing demand for monitoring or periodically supervising people’s state of health in any environment. In this field, the Instrumentation, Sensors and Interfaces Group of the UPC’s Department of Electronic Engineering in Castelldefels is working on the design of systems that enable patients’ vital signs to be monitored in domestic environments.
The researcher Oscar Casas reminded us that “not so long ago, houses were only equipped with a thermometer, and, with a bit of luck, a set of scales. Now it is not unusual for people to have portable equipment for measuring blood pressure or devices for testing blood sugar levels at home. Our aim is for this growing range of health systems for individual, rather than hospital, use to be available to everyone”.
The Group has designed a system for simultaneously detecting heart and respiratory rates that functions with force sensors, which are used to measure weight, even in conventional electronic scales. This domestic application can measure the aforementioned parameters faster than current systems, which tend to be uncomfortable for the patient due to the direct contact between the sensor and the skin and whose measurements can be affected by the movement of the sensor. Work is currently being undertaken on a chair that enables the measurement of these and other physiological parameters.
The future of these systems, which are useful for monitoring and supervising elderly or disabled people, involves making sensors that do not require contact, so that they can be concealed from the person who is being supervised and have the least possible impact on their daily activities. This enables action to be taken only when strictly necessary.
Support for hospital management
The development of information and communication technology that is adapted to the hospital environment and remote healthcare has great potential for the future. One application of this technology that is already being introduced in Mataró Hospital is a project in which the Wireless Networks Group (WNG) of the UPC’s Department of Telematics Engineering has participated. One of the aims of this project is to reduce the probability of drug administration errors, through a secure patient identification system that uses radiofrequency technology and also enables patients to be located in the health centre.
The researcher Josep Paradells explained that “the most interesting feature of these sensors, which are being placed in the hospital rooms and connected to each other by a mesh network (a wireless network with no infrastructure), is the fact that they configure themselves and collaborate with other sensors. In fact, this communications system can easily be installed in a hospital environment and does not require any extra cables”. This same idea of a network has been applied to developing a remote healthcare system for deaf people, which is connected to the telephone line.
Medical robots are used with increasing frequency in the medical field. Surgeons no longer operate on the basis of their skill and experience alone.
An example of research that is focused on resolving scientific and technological problems in this field is the study carried out by the Biomedical Engineering Research Centre (CREB) to measure forces on the humeral joint, according to the type of suture used after implanting prostheses. “During the rehabilitation process, exercises are undertaken to prevent ankylosis of the bone. However, the force on the stitches is sometimes enough to break them.
The design of a robotic test, of an anatomic model that behaves in the same way as a person’s arm, enables repetitive, systematic methodology to be applied to quantify the independent measurements of external factors. With tests like these, surgeons can learn how to improve surgical procedures. In this case, the aim is to identify the most suitable stitching method”, explained the researcher Alícia Casals, who is the leader of the IBEC’s robotics research group.
This line of research is complemented by the development of tools to help and support surgery, and to ensure that surgery is more precise, as well as tools that enable operations to be carried out at a distance using a robot.
Materials provided by Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
Cite This Page:
Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya. "Advances In Medical Technology: What Does The Future Hold?." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 16 June 2009. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/06/090616080133.htm>.
Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya. (2009, June 16). Advances In Medical Technology: What Does The Future Hold?. ScienceDaily. Retrieved March 13, 2018 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/06/090616080133.htm
Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya. "Advances In Medical Technology: What Does The Future Hold?." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/06/090616080133.htm (accessed March 13, 2018).