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The Future of Healthcare
 
Fahad Aziz
Co-founder of Caremerge, which provides comprehensive web and mobile communications and care-coordination solutions for senior living communities. Fahad is the author of several technical papers, and the recipient of Pakistan’s prestigious Performance Excellence Award.
 
  • How will machine learning, virtual reality, the Human Genome Project, and the Internet of things change healthcare?
  • Will technology result in a healthier future full of empowered patients?
  • Will big data strategies help physicians perform their jobs better?
  • Will 3D printing be used to replace tissue and organs?
  • Will VR allow scientists to experience physical and psychological challenges rather than observe them?

 
Living in Silicon Valley I have a front row seat to the in technology poised to reshape the future of humanity. Machine learning, Virtual Reality, the Human Genome Project and the Internet of things will undoubtedly impact our lives in general, but they can also have a major impact on the Healthcare industry in particular.

To visualize the future of healthcare, I took a look at what’s trending in Silicon Valley and applied them to the healthcare industry. If the possibilities seem farfetched today, remember the iPhone is less than a decade old and has spawned countless industries that have shaped our daily existence, and will continue to do so. Technology moves fast and these four trends can potentially disrupt all aspects healthcare.

Machine learning
Artificial Intelligence (AI) is not new to the technology world, but with machine learning, AI has taken on an open-ended form rife with endless opportunities for technology in general and healthcare in particular.

Machine learning enables computers to identify patterns and observe behaviors based on empirical data, and use all that to ‘learn’. In other words, machine learning is a set of self-learning algorithms that can eventually become smarter than any human being on this planet.

In 2012, Vinod Khosla, an American businessman and a co-founder of Sun Microsytems, predicted that in time, “Technology will replace 80% of what doctors do”; sparking outrage and umbrage within the healthcare industry. Physicians overlooked what Khosla was really saying: that big data, properly harnessed and utilized, had the potential to help physicians perform their jobs better. Farfetched at the time, big data and machine learning have come far enough in just four years to provide levity to Khasla’s argument.

When given access to a trillion gigabytes of patient data collected from devices, electronic health records (EHRs), laboratories, and DNA sequencing - alongside surrounding factors such as weather, geo-location, and viral outbursts - computers learn quickly, and they learn everything. The depth of information provided at such a scale suggests patients will not need to consult with various specialities to figure out what’s ailing them in the future. Instead, consolidated data will create and provide a fully coordinated treatment plan.

If you are thinking this sounds crazy, consider the fact that IBM acquired Truven Health for $2.6 Billion in early 2016. Truven delivers information, analytic tools, research, and services to the healthcare industry, and gives IBM access to data of some 200 million patients to feed Watson, which is IBM’s machine learning product that is a powerful question answering computer system capable of answering questions posed by natural language.

I can only imagine what Watson will offer after digesting this massive data, but one thing is for sure: the result is nothing but good news for patients and their care plans.

The Internet of things
Gartner, a US IT research and advisory firm, estimates six billion devices will be “connected” by 2020; collecting data for consumption, analytics and a whole lot more.

Healthcare has historically been a sucker for devices, embracing hardware that captures data, provides diagnostics and even treats patients. Previously, these devices have been in use only at hospitals and other healthcare locations, but in the future this technology has the potential to become a part of every single home; marking a new era in care.


How can the NHS innovate? - Mike Farrar, former NHS Confederation CEO

In the future, doctor’s visits will begin before we even head out the door. Our vitals will be captured at home and sent to our doctor. In some cases, we may even receive treatment in the comfort of our home. Further, once treatment begins, a real-time feed of our vitals and conditions will be shared and analyzed automatically via set protocols, which will trigger alerts if our health declines and requires a change in treatment.
 
The Internet of things has implications elsewhere for the healthcare industry. Pharmaceutical research could bid farewell to clinical trials once they can access millions of patients’ data to accurately analyze behaviors and outcomes.

Challenges facing immunizations could also be solved using simple, digitized solutions. Currently, vaccinations are rendered ineffective by temperature changes during their transport; a simple tracking device with a thermometer could solve that problem. Similar challenges with manufacturing, delivery and tracking of vaccination can also be digitized to make the immunization programs successful globally.

Last but not least, I foresee nano devices embedded within the human body to monitor glucose, blood pressure, temperature, and more; to allow for swifter, more effective decisions to be made so treatments can begin as soon as needed, significantly increasing positive outcomes.

The Human Genome Project
One of the greatest breakthroughs in healthcare this last decade was decoding the human genome to understand the DNA sequencing. It took over 10 years and a staggering US$2.7bn to crack the code of one human being. Just a decade later, it takes US$1,500 and a couple of hours to run the genome for any person.

The more we learn about DNA and its sequencing, the more accurately we can treat patients for their illnesses. There will be no guesswork involved, instead, a complete technical report will show exactly what went wrong since last time, and what can be done to fix it.

The future is closer than we think. I suspect human genome machines will be deployed at healthcare locations in the near term. The appetite for this type of information will grow, and eventually, we may live in an age where small genome devices are installed under your sink or inside your toilet seat to analyze changes in your DNA sequencing several times a day.

Today, researchers in Europe are using 3D printers and DNA sequencing to create human body parts that can potentially replace limbs or ailing organs. Prototypes already exist. DNA sequencing will help people take more control over their bodies, allowing them to make better informed decisions about their lifestyle, illnesses and treatments. This means that doctors’ roles will change, potentially allowing for a complete shift in the healthcare paradigm.

Virtual reality in healthcare
Mark Zuckerberg, chairman, CEO and co-founder of Facebook, takes every opportunity he can to promote his latest US$2bn acquisition, Oculus VR, an American virtual reality company, whose product, Oculus Rift, is a virtual reality (VR) headset. I had the opportunity to try Oculus Rift, and was blown away. Market analysts say Zuckerberg was crazy to bet on this, but I know he has discovered a platform with the potential to be larger than Facebook.

Virtual reality transports you into another world by creating an artificial environment, deceiving your sense of sight and touch, so your mind believes you are part of that environment. At a recent Aging2.0 conference, I watched a man in his 30s struggle to walk while wearing an Oculus Rift headset. A moment after putting it on he experienced the physical shortcomings of someone in there 80s. These types of experiences open up a new world for researchers by providing them with the ability to directly experience physical and psychological challenges rather than rely on observations.


Doctors' resistance to change - Devi Shetty,  founder of Narayana Hrudayala, Bangalore, India

The environment created by VR is artificial and programmed, at least for now. But fast forward three to four years, and you will likely be in a real environment. Consider this: a doctor could be transported to a hospital in Kenya while sitting in the relative comfort of his clinic in San Francisco. VR would allow the user to move around and interact with people enabling participation in treatments, research or even surgery.

I suspect Zuckerberg will combine social networking and virtual reality, allowing people from any part of the world to meet up with one another, to visit places they have previously only dreamed of, and go on adventures their body would never allow in the real world.

In healthcare, innovators are already leveraging VR for treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), autism, social cognition, meditation, and help with exposure therapy and surgical training. And this is just the beginning.
 
Takeaways
The day is fast approaching when I will be able to virtually go to hospital to meet with doctors and specialists, share my vitals through various devices and a video camera to gain assessment and treatment plans from the comfort of my own home.

Healthcare information and management systems (HIMSS) have never disappointed me in terms of their participation and size, and I am hopeful that innovations will continue to shock, whispering promises of a healthier future full of empowered patients.

 
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