Though industry-specific technology will always occupy a big space in healthcare, there’s no question that consumer tech plays just as large a role in influencing the shape and texture of the industry. Every major technology to hit the business and private sectors has been adapted for use in medical fields; while the marriage hasn’t always gone smoothly, it’s impossible to say the change hasn’t been overall good for patients, clinicians, and organizations.
Now, with a hugely promising technological future on the horizon, it’s easy to see several areas where consumer tech and medical need may soon meet. Whether they affect individual roles or the industry at large, expect these upcoming advancements to make a major splash in healthcare within the next decade.
Predicting and Analyzing
The biggest potential game-changer in medicine is the hardest to get a specific picture of, but only because it’ll expand to cover so many uses in the next decade. Big Data — the catch-all term for data analytics, covering everything from social media data mining to customer survey info and beyond — will change jobs, roles, procedures, staffing, intake, and everything else about the medical field.
Not that this is a bad thing. With the power of predictive analytics fully realized, medicine in general should be more efficient and effective than ever. Take the recent “move toward evidence-based medicine,” as one McKinsey & Company piece put it. Being able to back up caregiving decisions with gigantic pools of treatment data will not only enable practitioners to give better care, but it will also change inefficient procedures, help develop new treatments based on broad-scale findings, and give every member of every care team consistent, relevant info on a minute-by-minute basis.
Perhaps most exciting? That’s only one small taste of what Big Data will do. Whatever comes next, you can be sure of one thing: When people talk about transformative technologies, data is the biggest and brightest of the bunch.
A More Honest Patient
You don’t have to wait for the future for internet-connected sensors to be everywhere. They’re already here, and you interact with them daily. That’s the basic idea behind the Internet of Things (IoT), another buzzword used to describe a mishmash of big-potential technologies: countless connected gizmos recording and reporting data from surprising hardware sources, such as walk-in refrigerators or a patient’s shoes. If Big Data covers what we do with the information we receive, the IoT is how we’ll collect it in the first place.
Like Big Data, the IoT is already well on its way to becoming a transformative medical technology. And while its potential uses could fill volumes, the biggest positive for physicians, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, dentists, and other front-line caregivers comes down to gathering accurate patient data, including the kind patients are usually trusted to record and report on their own.
The personal health trackers and wireless telemetry devices you likely interact with today are present-day examples of this idea. Digital pills like Proteus are another. These ingestible devices, which are already used to track medication use among patients with “serious mental illness,” are just the first taste of a future in which a single, swallowed device could monitor data as far-reaching as medication compliance, illegal use (helpful in drug rehabilitation programs, for example), exercise activity, body chemistry stats, and so on.
In a patient-doctor climate where numerous factors can cause a patient to inaccurately report health information, that will be a massive change for every step of the healthcare process.
As with many technologies, automation will be one part of a larger, interlocked set of systems and tools. Let’s say a near-future patient is visiting relatives across state when she realizes her medication, a controlled substance that she is supposed to take once every other day, didn’t make the trip with her. Driving back home is not an option, so she visits a local urgent care office.
Information on the medication levels in her blood have already been reported to a centralized server, the data for which appears on the nurse practitioner’s tablet as soon as she accesses the patient’s records. With this info confirmed (along with checking physical symptoms, of course), she’s able to write an emergency prescription in good conscience and send the relieved patient on her way.
On a larger scale, that same data could be anonymously and automatically reported to a larger study algorithm and used to derive more efficient dosage information for people with the patient’s very specific set of needs and symptoms, amid other potential lifestyle interactions such as diet and exercise levels.
This may not sound like much. But when you consider the level of disconnect between care providers, health networks, insurance companies, and pharmacists, along with the delay the same patient would see today (as described in this recent Vox article, for instance), you begin to see the power of automated tools. By putting administrative and easily verified medical work in the hands of computers, caregivers at all levels are better prepared to handle the tasks humans must do — and therein lies automation’s biggest strength.
If this resounding positivity makes you think the future of healthcare tech is all rainbows and cake, however, you may want to reconsider. Technology’s tendency to share information and the healthcare industry’s critical and government-regulated need to adhere to strict privacy rules have always been at odds, especially in the consumer space. Increased functionality may only widen that gap.
Let’s turn to another example. Say you’re seeing a patient ten years from now. You need to cross-reference the data on her two devices: a personal device that tracks food and exercise data by default, and another you’ve provided to monitor her blood glucose levels. You use a cloud-based platform on her personal device to pull the data to your company’s computers. Though your company’s systems are HIPAA-compliant, the dozen or more servers the info jumps across aren’t, opening the patient to data theft and your company to fines and other problems.
That’s a general example, and it’s plausible that consumer tech and regulatory bodies will sync better over time. Even so, situations mirroring this basic scenario are sure to spring up thanks to ever-strict privacy laws clashing with an increasingly social personal-tech culture. If that sounds strange, think about how the past version of you would have reacted 20 or 30 years ago if someone told you about all the high-tech tools you’d have access to today.
Of course, these are just a few examples of the larger-scale changes technology will set in motion for healthcare providers.
In some ways, the future is already here. One example, 3D printing, is primed to do revolutionary things in the medical world and beyond, with applications ranging from in-house creation of complex devices (think orthotics or prosthetics) to medication “printing.”
You can also bet that home-health nurses will soon be driven on a circuit by computer-controlled driverless cars, helping to ensure prompt arrival times, and automatic shuttles will traverse spread-out hospital campuses. These changes may sound unbelievable, but they will likely be commonplace before long.
Whether you’re talking research, operational efficiency, quality of care, or convenience in general, it’s an exciting time to be in healthcare.