Seven technologies that will revolutionise healthcare

29 August 2019

By Mark Skilton

The fourth industrial revolution is happening all around us. The convergence of artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, virtual and augmented reality, 3D printing and the internet of things is shaping an exciting future in so many industries and none more so than healthcare.

Europe, the US and much of the developed world are struggling to cope with an aging population that is stretching resources and healthcare systems to - in some cases - breaking point.

The fourth industrial revolution offers hope to beleaguered clinicians and hospital managers wilting under the demands of longer life expectancy that will see, according to the United Nations, over-60s make up 20 per cent of the world’s population by 2050, which will be 25 per cent in the UK.

These new technologies will ease the burden for doctors, freeing up time and valuable resources to improve patient care and bring cost savings to hospitals to spend on much-needed facilities.

Here are seven technologies that are set to revolutionise hospitals and patient treatment across the world:


1 Artificial Intelligence

AI brings with it computing power on a scale never seen before. It will mean computers will be able to examine not Gigabytes, not Terabytes, not even Petabytes, but Exabytes of data. One Exabyte is the equivalent of storing 11 million movies in 4k format, or the entire Library of Congress three times over, or 1.5 billion CD-Rom discs – remember those? Just for comparison one gigabyte is just over one CD.

So AI will be able to scan potentially millions of data records in hours to look for, say, cancer cells. It will speed up and automate medical research that no human could do in a lifetime, finding new links and patterns that can assist in new medical discoveries. This will also be the starting point of a diagnosis, AI machines will spot diseases and alert doctors in an instant.


2 Intelligent agents

Chatbots for patients are spreading fast, from booking appointments to assessing symptoms, they will become a useful tool for time-pressed GPs and clinicians.

The latest chatbots - or intelligent agents - can also help with medical procedures, listening in or viewing what is happening in the background with snesnors and then reminding hospital staff if a step has been missed.

One setting where this is proving useful is in the high-pressure environment of A&E. Intelligent agents can follow the procedures being used by nurses, giving helpful reminders after each step.

While nurses and staff can chat to the agent to check anything and make sure they are following the correct procedure – this can free up senior staff to attend more complicated incidents.

You can also have cameras or sensors checking the location of people and agents can then send an alert if a patient has fallen over or is not where they should be.

3 VR headsets in surgery 

Remote surgery through robots is already a reality, where robots have a much steadier arm and can be directed by surgeons in such areas as keyhole surgery, where a tiny camera is inserted in the body to lead the doctor, and especially where minute precision is absolutely vital, such as in brain surgery.

Now surgeons are able to use Virtual Reality (VR) headsets to look at a 3D image of a body part they are operating on. There is also the possibility of scanning a person’s body, creating a digital version of it or the area where surgery will take place, and then create a 3D image to help manoeuvre around it and locate the precise position of the affected areas, particularly if it is in a sensitive area, like the spinal cord.


4 Smart pills

Instead of needing regular check-ups with your doctor or GP, patients can now swallow a pill which, thanks to nanotechnology, will then be able to monitor their body and its vital signs 24/7.

The Doctor or GP will be able to log in and check on the patient through the pill, while the patient can also monitor themself and both can be sent alerts if anything untoward happens.

There are also smart pills that will tell doctors if the prescription has been taken and if the patient is taking it regularly enough, this will save healthcare organisations millions of pounds in unused drugs and help monitor patients’ dosage.

The pill could also be connected to a home healthcare ecosystem where a smart toilet can test your urine and faeces through the internet of things, so you are continually connected to your doctor. I spend more money on car maintenance than I spend on looking after myself, but this technology can change that.


5 3D printing organs and drugs 

In the UK patients wait on average 944 days for a lifesaving transplant, while in the US 35 per cent of all deaths a year could be prevented with a transplant. 3D printing has the potential to solve such pressing issues.

Composite materials are now being developed that can be used to build organs and tissue in 3D printers, such as that developed by Swedish bioprinting firm Cellink.

Patients could also be 3D printing their own drugs. There has been advancement in this area so people could print their own drugs and have them personalised for their own requirements.

With a gene profile people can have precision therapy at their fingertips with a 3D printer, helping them get the exact dosage and mix they require.

It could also make drugs that have not been produced for rare conditions because they wouldn’t be profitable on a mass scale, to be affordably made by individuals and their 3D printers instead.

6 Gene editing 

The discovery of CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) has suddenly made gene-editing cheaper and a lot easier for modifying DNA.

This technique has adapted a molecular machine used by bacteria to cut the DNA of invading viruses to work on our own genes.

It finds the part of the DNA to cut and then injects the new gene. This is still in development but has made gene-editing a more precise and potentially revolutionary with many genetic diseases now possibly being eliminated.


7 Simulating organs on a chip 

Artificial organs are being created using microfluid technology on silicon chips to mimic organs like the lung, heart, kidney or human skin.

This will revolutionise the way we test drugs and do clinical trials, which traditionally takes years. Also, the controversy surrounding the use of animals in laboratories to test drugs could finally be over if this technology takes off.

Instead of testing on animals and eventually humans in long-winding trials, it can be done just as well on these microchips or Organ-on-a-Chip (OOC).

This can accelerate drug development and advance personalised medicine to benefit us all in the future.

Mark Skilton is Professor of Practice in Information Systems and Management. He teaches Digital Business Strategy on the MSc Information Systems Management & Digital Innovation and Developing Consulting Expertise on MSc Business with Consulting.

Follow Mark Skilton on Twitter @mskilton.

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