We can't argue the benefits of technological breakthroughs in healthcare. But some aspects of futuristic medicine still make us squirm.
Are we really ready for robots to fill in for doctors? For humans to become cyborgs? For synthetic organs to replace real ones?
According to Bertalan Mesko, author of The Guide to the Future of Medicine, healthcare of the future will have to strike a balance between technical innovation and the human touch. Here are six examples of medical technology that have the power to improve your health - and possibly save your life!
1. Stem Cell Research And Therapy
Stem cells generate every cell type in your body. They're like microscopic starter kits for humans.
Researchers study stem cells to learn how they mature into bones, nerves, heart muscles, and other organs and tissues. Pharmacists use stem cells to test the safety of new drugs before making them commercially available. Doctors use stem cell therapy to replace a patient's diseased cells with healthy ones.
Stem cell therapy can be used to treat patients with medical conditions such as Type 1 diabetes, heart attack, stroke, Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, spinal cord damage, and cancer. Considering heart disease and cancer are two of America's biggest killers, advancements in stem cell research and therapy will continue to change the face of modern medicine.
2. 3D Printing
You might have heard of 3D printers being used to produce food, building materials, art, and even guns. However, one of the industry's biggest areas of growth will be in medical technology.
3D printing will allow scientists to:
- Manufacture medical equipment for use in underdeveloped areas
- Print prosthetic parts and synthetic skin
- Manufacture pharmaceutical drugs
- Create new human cells
The benefits of 3D printing are staggering.
3D printing allows doctors to test the effects of disease on human organs. For example, research company Organovo has printed human liver tissue to test drug toxicity on parts of the liver.
Open source 3D printers allow scientists and researchers to share their research and development with the international medical community.
And in the not-so-distant future, 3D printing could even be used to **create organ transplants for humans.
3. Augmented Reality Devices
Augmented reality devices display and process information instantly. Google Glass, for instance, has been used to live-stream a surgery from the surgeon's perspective. Other devices can organize live consultations, display a patient's electronic medical records in real-time, and provide an ambulance with a patient's exact GPS location.
Imagine if, after a decade of paralysis, you could stand and walk *on your own*. Thanks to robotics, that dream is already a reality. Ekso Bionics, a pioneer in the field of robotic exoskeletons, has created a wearable bionic suit that helps paralyzed patients walk again.
While bionic suits help people stand on their own two feet, surgical robots help doctors plan, simulate, and perform actual surgeries. Doctors are even anticipating the growth of long-distance operations, where a surgeon could operate on a patient from another city, state, or even continent.
Lastly, humanoid robots are being developed to provide basic care to elderly patients in nursing homes and hospitals. Another humanoid bot, nicknamed "Russell," helps autistic children develop basic social skills.
And get this: In a few years, technologists might create these robots using 3D printing technology.
You'd probably wear a robotic suit if it could help you move. But would you swallow a robot if it could help you prevent and treat disease?
Nanorobots are microscopic devices that treat or block the onset of disease from within your body. They're still in the research and development phase, but they have enormous potential. Respirocytes, for example, would act as artificial red blood cells that oxygenate a patient's tissues for up to four hours after a heart attack. The "DNA Nanocage" would contain cancer-fighting medicine in an ingestible pill.
You might be slightly horrified by the idea of microscopic objects floating in your bloodstream. Instead, think of nanorobots as tiny health technicians. When something goes wrong with your body's cells, they fix the damage before the consequences become life-threatening.
6. Electronic Diagnoses And Consultation
In Star Trek, Dr. McCoy used a tricorder scanner to instantly diagnose a medical condition. In January 2016, the Qualcomm Tricorder XPrize will be awarded to teams that convert the sci-fi tool into a usable medical device.
Winners of the XPrize must develop a handheld device that can:
- Track patients' vital signs (like heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature)
- Accurately diagnose 16 medical conditions (like diabetes and stroke)
- Send collected data to the cloud, so doctors and patients can access and discuss the results
The "Scanadu Scout" is one of the devices in the running. This tiny sensor, which is now being tested in 70 countries, can check your vital signs *just by touching your forehead*.
Imagine how useful these medical devices would be for patients living in remote areas, or for the rest of us who have a hard time squeezing a routine checkup into our busy schedules.
Technology Is Reshaping Your Health
When healthcare services become cheaper and easier to use, you have the freedom to decide when, where, and how you receive care.
And when you have access to the best medical services and health insurance that will pay for the best services you can finally take control of your health.
Which new technologies will have the longest-lasting impacts on you and your family? You'll just have to wait and see.