Electronic medical records. DNA sequencing. Big data. These technology trends are changing the way medicine is practiced today — but what’s coming next?
I scoured the web, reached out to futurists and drew from past conversations with industry leaders to compile a list of the next generation of disruptive technologies that are on the brink of breaking through in healthcare. What’s missing from this list?
Artificial intelligence/algorithm medicine
Predictive analytics tools that use data to help healthcare administrators identify high-risk patients and make efficient decisions are already in place in many hospitals. Now companies are developing decision support tools for clinicians that compare an individual patient’s data to large amounts of historical outcomes data.
“I would see AI as the next step beyond predictive analytics,” said eHealth blogger John Sharp. “There’s a lot of discussion around IBM Watson; I think that is AI rather than predictive modeling in the sense that Watson gathers all of the information available from medical literature and would compare that to a patient or population of patients and recommends certain treatments.”
This is being applied on a smaller scale, too. An app for heart failure patients and cardiologists is one example, and a clinical decision support system for intensive care units is another.
Internet of things
This concept takes remote patient monitoring to the next level, involving multiple connected devices that can coordinate with each other through a wireless network without human intervention. Sharp, who’s in charge of clinical informatics research at Cleveland Clinic, says hospitals have just scratched the surface of this with smart infusion pumps and RFID tagging. “There’s potential for a lot of these things to talk to each other and raise alerts when something is out of whack, and potentially even detect infections,” he said.
Dave Evans, “chief futurist” for the Cisco Internet Business Solutions Group (IBSG), wrote in a blog post that an internet of things could also virtualize healthcare resources. “As more physicians retire and the population grows, (Internet of Everything) will allow us to receive health care at home and in other places where we don’t receive health care today. This extends beyond wearable technology. Connected pills, connected pill bottles, and connected labs on chips will virtualize health care and scale existing health care resources, creating more opportunities for insightful data.”
Short for micro electro mechanical systems, MEMS involves the use of miniaturized sensors, actuators and electronics that are smaller than the thickness of a human hair. Such technology has already penetrated the research market, with speedier, more precise tools for biologists and chemists. Now companies like CardioMems and MicroCHIPS are working on commercial implantable devices that can transmit data outside of the body for clinical use. However, regulation remains a big question here.
Wearable medical devices
We’re not just talking about the fitness bands you wear around your wrist. We’re talking flexible electronics — lightweight, portable sensors that could be, for example, adhered to the skin to collect biometric data. Or swallowable (not technically wearable, but it’s the same idea) smart pills that let clinicians know when patients aren’t taking their medications. The hope is that these devices could help patients and clinicians manage chronic diseases.
Natural language processing
The medical scribe business is hot. But another way of easing the burden of collecting patient data – especially the kind that’s anecdotal – is also heating up. Some EHR vendors have embedded voice transcription technologies into their products, and more advanced products that give structure to unstructured data are on the way. Some say natural language processing could change the way we interact with healthcare data, the same way that Siri has changed the way people interact with their cellphones.
Nokia and XPRIZE are hunting for a medical tricorder, armed with $10 million as a reward, but this movement is much bigger than the contest. Sensors, mobile technology and at-home medicine meet in this concept, which calls for development of a portable screening device consumers could use to self-diagnose medical conditions a la Star Trek. Scanadu’s Scout is the most high-profile device under development, but there are dozens of teams across the world working toward this goal.
From targeted cancer drugs to molecular diagnostics, advances in genome sequencing are driving precision medicine. It’s defined by Pfizer as “an approach to discovering and developing medicines and vaccines that deliver superior outcomes for patients, by integrating clinical and molecular information to understand the basis of disease.”
Some use precision medicine synonymously with personalized medicine. Others say it’s a better term that captures the idea of personalized medicine more clearly: Not as medical care that’s tailored to an individual but rather the ability to classify individuals into smaller populations that might be more susceptible to certain diseases or respond to drugs differently. This term has been slowly gaining steam since 2011.
Time-consuming administrative tasks like medical billing, revenue cycle management and inventory management are prime targets for automating IT solutions. As more data becomes digital rather than paper-based, more opportunities open for innovation in this area to save time in hospitals and physician practices.