Healthcare is encountering a reckoning that will continue to challenge it in critical ways. Indeed, the traditional ecosystem is under attack on almost every front. Patient demographics are rapidly changing as populations age and younger populations become increasingly more diverse. The cost of delivering healthcare grows year over year. New players are entering the market and challenging large healthcare organizations. And there’s a renewed push for value-based care.
From providers to payers, healthcare needs to become leaner and smarter without losing its focus on evidence-based care and patient outcomes. The top tech trends are helping the industry do just that. New trends like big data and artificial intelligence will ideally not only make healthcare more affordable but also more accessible because they’ll allow providers to hyperfocus on what matters: patient satisfaction.
These technologies are still in their relative infancy, but they are shaking up healthcare as we know it. And they’re also presenting new challenges that go beyond engineering and programming and dive into the beating heart of medical practice: ethics.
Big data is the king of everything
Big data is undoubtedly at the heart of almost every healthcare trend because unlike other technologies, like 3D printing and robotics, it touches almost every aspect of care. From preventive care to the billing department, everyone is contributing to and benefiting from big data. Why? Because healthcare relies on evidence-based practice, and when you have more data and systems that can analyze it, you not only have more evidence but more precise evidence.
The data isn’t the only trend: several other technologies have matured to accommodate the vast amount of variable data now used. It won’t be long before healthcare workers also need to know about cloud computing, data visualization, machine learning, and predictive analytics to work in the field. Each of these tools allows researchers and practitioners to make data-informed decisions that improve patient outcomes.
For example, researchers at Stanford used AI to examine the genes of over 400,000 people and found that height is a predictor of varicose veins. The same big data that identified this new predictor of varicose veins can also likely be deployed to identify the best methods for treating varicose veins, such as by identifying the optimal frequency settings for lasers.
Big data is also one of the driving forces behind the practice of value-based care, which is where people on the front lines of healthcare will likely see the most impact. Value-based care aims to deliver healthcare in a way that is in line with patient health outcomes: if a physician heals, then they get paid. The goal of the practice is to ensure that patients spend less and enjoy better outcomes and providers enjoy higher patient satisfaction and more efficient modes of working. To accomplish this, teams need to be able to share data and coordinate care, which makes items like data visualization and cloud computing as important as big data.
3D printing could save 900,000 lives
Three-dimensional (3D) printing is only gaining momentum in popular media now, but it’s actually the oldest of the tech innovations within the economy generally. It has also always had a huge focus on healthcare: in the late 1980s, Chuck Hall made an eyewash cup using the process of stereolithography.
There’s already significant use of 3D printed models today, particularly in the field of medical imaging. On-screen imaging comes with some significant limitations for both diagnosticians and surgeons. When they can print a 1:1 model of an anatomical area from the patients’ images, they can not only get a better sense of the area for preoperative procedures, but they’re better able to collaborate with other team members or even distributed teams in other hospitals.
The more fantastical changes could also be coming soon. Media reports have suggested for the past 5 years (and longer) that printing a living organ on demand could be the next big challenge for healthcare. Several companies, including the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine and Prellis Biologics, are already working on it. Prellis uses a holographic printing technology that uses bio-ink and combines it with a light-sensitive photo-initiator, which creates a reaction when the material experiences infrared light. When available, it could reduce the number of organ failure deaths (currently there are 900,000 deaths a year in the U.S. that could be prevented or delayed with timely organ transplantation) and dramatically lower the level of organ rejection because the organs would be printed on-demand and created to custom fit the patient.
Artificial intelligence and robots are providing care
Artificial intelligence goes hand-in-hand with big data. As data grows, practitioners and researchers will require more sophisticated applications of AI. Currently, AI’s biggest applications remain among life science companies and insurance companies as well as in parsing vast data sets in clinical studies. However, it has already expanded into key areas like diagnostics and treatment recommendations as well as with patient engagement.
Right now, AI is helping healthcare the same way it’s serving as a boon to other industries: it’s automating routine tasks so that care providers and workers can focus on the patient first. AI can do things like analyze hospital data to identify what areas benefit from more staffing and when. It can also look for ways to allocate resources and share knowledge.
There are also other slightly more exotic uses of AI, particularly in the form of robotics. Robots have been used in the operating room and in labs for years as an aid to human surgeons. Today, they’re even helping provide care by moving patients and serving as mobility aids. As they become emotionally more intelligent, they could even be deployed to homes to not only provide basic care to aging people but provide them with comfort through social interactions.
Ethical issues and healthcare trends
Every one of the top tech trends in healthcare above is relatively slow-moving in terms of getting it in front of patients. The ethical implications of printing 3D organs from bio-ink or providing patient care via robots and algorithms are considerable. For those developing the technologies, it’s easy to get lost in the uniqueness of the value proposition. But for those who deliver healthcare, questions remain.
3D printing, in particular, poses some very deep ethical questions. If a new technology could prevent or delay 900,000 deaths each year (that’s one-third of all deaths in the U.S.), then, of course, it would be amazing for individuals and their families. There would be little to no waiting list for transplants, which is a current problem as there are far fewer organ donors than there are people who need them and the disparity keeps growing.
At the same time, there are worries about “playing God” and whether the technology would push people’s bodies beyond “normal” human capacities. There’s also the issue of cost: initial costs would be high, but would they be cost-effective, and if so, would it increase health disparities? Of course, there is also the issue of safety.
The biggest tech trends aren’t only pushing what scientists are currently capable of, they’re also ushering a new era of medical ethics. And the swiftness of the development of these technologies may mean it outpaces human’s ability to solve those questions.
This is a guest post by Jori Hamilton. Jori is an experienced freelance writer from the Northwestern U.S who takes interest in covering topics related to business, technology, and productivity. You can find her on Twitter and LinkedIn or view her portfolio.