As a healthcare provider, you seek ways to reduce costs, increase efficiency, and lower risk for your business and patients. New technologies are achieving these goals. Here are five innovations changing healthcare in our nation and across the globe.
1. Robots are revolutionizing care in hospitals, nursing homes, and home health care.
An exoskeleton is a wearable robotic with motorized leg braces that propel movement. The appliance is powered by a battery and controlled by a wrist-mounted remote.
In the aftermath of spinal cord injury and stroke, people are regaining mobility. Exoskeletons enable the disabled to walk, run, and use stairs. Last year in Switzerland, handicapped athletes competed, wearing bionic exoskeletons.
Currently, in Switzerland and Italy, researchers are designing a wearable robotic to prevent falls. The gear detects loss of balance and moves a person’s legs to restore equilibrium. The Active Pelvis Orthosis (APO) is a waist brace with motorized hips connected to thigh braces. If leg movement deviates from normal gait, the motors exert a counteractive force. Seniors and amputees have tested the APO. It reacts in less than a second!
To activate the equipment, a user secures the straps, inputs their weight, and takes three steps. In a few minutes, the device configures a model of the wearer’s normal walking pattern. When the APO detects a shift, it amplifies leg force by 20 or 30 percent.
Now the goal is to make the appliance wireless and less bulky. Future models will be able to distinguish between different types of falls, delivering more adapted assistance.
In operating suites, doctors direct machines to perform surgery. Working with exceptional precision, robots render minimally invasive procedures with less subsequent scarring than conventional operations. Machines also have the advantage of not becoming fatigued.
In China, studies are exploring nano-robots to target cancer drug delivery. The devices will be able to swim through the body to designated locations.
In hospitals, robots ferry lab samples, pharmacy supplies, patient meals, linens, and trash. They assist nursing staff to transfer patients out of beds and back. In pediatrics, robotic puppets dispel fear in children.
In the home setting, robotic companions relieve senior loneliness and depression. Owners can hold discussions with them and receive timely medication reminders. Robots also coax autistic children out of social isolation.
2. Telemedicine is saving lives.
Patients receive prompt medical care via smartphones, emails, and webcams. With such technology, patients relay symptoms and vital signs to doctors without having to make office visits. This convenience is especially advantageous for the elderly, disabled, and distant patients for whom travel is difficult or impossible.
Since the development of telemedicine, doctors are treating more patients in less time. During medical emergencies, they consult with experts to make lifesaving decisions.
For example, Doctors Without Borders has 280 medical experts fielding questions from clinicians around the world and answering them via the Internet. At the Mayo Clinic, physicians treating out-of-state patients follow up with them at home via email, web chats, and telephone.
In remote rural areas lacking medical facilities, telecommunication ensures that residents receive care. For example, in a community outside St. Louis, a medical team operates the Mercy Virtual Care Center. Specialists provide computerized support to emergency rooms, ICUs, and other hospital departments across the US.
Doctors examine patient data on large video monitors by which they identify symptoms. Using a two-way camera with zoom function, they analyze details of medical situations. They can even decipher small print on an IV bag! Then, they dispense orders to local medical staff to provide vital care. In 2016, Mercy specialists reported 1,000 fewer deaths than what would have occurred without telemedicine.
3. 3D printing is replicating human anatomy.
This technology, also known as additive manufacturing and 3DP, uses software to create digital objects and print them in three dimensions. Layers of material are stacked together, forming models with numerous healthcare applications.
Virtually any shape can be duplicated, along with intricate components, such as the dense network of bones. The additive process is entirely different from traditional manufacturing, which uses subtracting techniques like drilling and cutting to shape objects. Numerous materials are amenable to 3DP, including plastic, rubber, glass, carbon fibers, and metallic powder. Also feasible are organic substances, such as sand, wood, and cells.
Although 3DP dates back to 1984, it’s only recently become widely used. Initially, the high printer cost made it impractical for most healthcare providers. Currently, prices run between $2,000 and $8,000 for a desktop-size machine.
Also, it’s taken time for physicians and surgeons to become skilled in making digital models and customizing them to patient needs. The science is now being implemented by hospitals, universities, and private practices.
3DP can reproduce surgical instruments, implantable organs, and other types of human anatomy. Here are some examples of healthcare applications.
Traditionally, prosthetists craft an artificial limb by taking measurements of a remaining extremity, producing a plaster model, and then customizing it with hand tools. Making one prosthetic can take up to four hours. 3DP can complete the process in considerably less time and with greater precision.
Surgeons create replicas of human anatomy and medical devices. For example, in knee ligament reconstruction, orthopedists use the Pathfinder, a Class I medical device. Bio-printed tissue repairs burns. Airway splints prevent lung collapse in babies. Designed to expand as children grow, they cost only $10 per unit. As 3DP progresses, patients needing organ transplants won’t have to wait until they’re donated.
Organs can even exceed human functional capacities! For example, Princeton University scientists are developing a bionic ear, able to hear beyond the typical frequencies of human ears.
Dental labs can quickly produce bridges, crowns, aligners, retainers, and models. Patients are spared the discomfort of taking impressions. Universities employ 3DP models for teaching purposes.
A cast in the works heals bones twice as fast as conventional casts. Pills in new shapes expedite release rates. Customized drug formulations will personalize medication. Prosthetic hands can duplicate human function.
Bioglass is a new self-healing material intended to replace cartilage. Ultimately, war veterans will be healed of incapacitating injuries.
4. Medical tricorders are expediting diagnoses.
Have you ever watched the 1960s TV program “Star Trek”? If so, you may recall how Dr. McCoy used his tricorder to quickly measure vital signs and make a diagnosis.
Similar to the doc’s hand-held gadget is the Scanadu Scout. The device analyzes your temperature, blood pressure, heart rate, oxygen saturation, respiration, stress level, and urine components. Then, the unit records your measurements and displays them on a smartphone.
The Viatom CheckMe measures sleep quality, daily activity, body temperature, pulse, blood pressure, blood oxygenation, and electrical activity of the heart as an ECG reading.
With devices like these, people can evaluate their health, make improvements, and ward off disease. Doctors can make timely diagnoses. Medical tricorders are especially valuable in underdeveloped regions lacking physicians and laboratory equipment.
5. Vendor management systems are reducing administrative risks and costs.
Traditionally, healthcare providers have been relegated to monitoring supplies manually. However, with such a rudimentary system, you can’t closely evaluate vendor performance, products, and outcomes. By automating vendor management, your decisions are well-informed, based on objective criteria. You can reduce financial risk and increase efficiency.
With vendor management software, all your supplier information is stored in a central digital location. You can easily access all your data from multiple sources. Since vendor profiles are readily available, you can quickly compare suppliers and their products.
Here’s an example. Let’s hypothesize that your computerized evaluation of a particular vendor shows a sudden drop in product quality. Now, you can call the company and find out why. Without receiving this red flag, your financial loss could be considerable as time progressed. You might not notice the downward trend until the adverse effects were painfully obvious.
With vendor management software, you can easily track shipments. You can also measure contract compliance. If lapses are noted, you can take action against failure before it mushrooms.
With financial metrics, you can gauge the financial solvency of suppliers. You can predict future risk by examining vendor revenues, growth, profit, and administrative changes, such as acquisitions and mergers.
As more healthcare providers employ this software, competition among vendors will increase. Consequently, inferior suppliers could be driven off the market, leaving only the best in business. This positive outcome will result in a higher quality of patient care.
Technology is shaping healthcare in five ways:
- The practice of medicine is safer and more precise. Robots improve surgical outcomes and drug delivery. Strong, tireless arms transport supplies and transfer patients. For the physically disabled, robots restore mobility and prevent falls. They also provide companionship to seniors and children.
- Healthcare delivery is becoming more efficient. Telemedicine bridges the communication gap between patients and doctors. In developed countries, patients spend less time in physicians’ waiting rooms. In remote regions, people receive the lifesaving medical care they’d otherwise lack.
- Medical care is being customized rather than universally prescribed. 3DP replicates human anatomy at a person’s cellular level.
- Healthcare is becoming more proactive than reactive. Devices like medical tricorders help people self-monitor health toward disease prevention and improved well-being.
- Medical product quality is increasing. Vendor management software helps healthcare providers maintain inventories using reputable suppliers.
As time progresses, the field of medicine is akin to science fiction. Futuristic fantasy is becoming a reality!