Bertalan Meskó
Medical Futurist

The future of healthcare and pharma

Enormous technological changes are heading our way. If they hit us unprepared, which we are now, they will wash away the medical system we know and leave it a purely technology–based service without personal interaction. Such a complicated system should not be washed away. Rather, it should be consciously and purposefully redesigned piece by piece. If we are unprepared for the future, then we lose this opportunity. I think we are still in time and it is still possible if an easily digestible and practical guide becomes available.

Discovering and understanding the latest trends and technologies that will shape the future of healthcare help us in this challenge. Some of these trends include:

1) Health sensors – Portable diagnostics

Smartphones being used as biosensors and wearable devices enabling patients to measure almost any health parameter at home would mean that information and health variables would finally not only be available in the ivory tower of medicine, but at home. This way, patients would have a chance for a better health management. Lifestyle could also be gamified with these devices to make it more healthy. There are smartforks currently available that teach us how to eat properly; we can soon measure the number of calories in our food with Tellspec; can measure oxygen saturation; pulse variability, ECG, EEG and even more.

Smartphones being used as biosensors and wearable devices give patients a chance for a better health management

2) Artificial intelligence in decision making

Even the most acclaimed professors can only keep a few studies in mind, but there are actually 23 million papers in the database of PubMed.com. It is humanly impossible now to keep up with these. But help is coming. IBM’s supercomputer named Watson has been tested at several clinics in the decision making process. While the doctor talks with the patient, Watson checks the medical records and the global literature, then makes suggestions. Every time, the doctor makes the final call with all the required information being available.

3) The end of human experiments

Even in the 2010 years, we are still testing new drugs and molecules on patients. Some of them get the actual drug, others get placebo to see the difference. Several research groups are working on the creation of the first virtual physiological model of the human body. This way, thousands of new molecules could be tested on billions of patients models looking for side effects or toxic outcomes with a supercomputer. HumMod is the most famous example.

4) Augmented reality

Rafael Grossmann, MD uses Google Glass to stream operations to his medical students to teach them in an entirely new way. Moreover, now when the patient comes in and they discuss symptoms, he can still look into the patient’s eye, instead of immediately looking at the monitor while inputting data. The Evena glasses let nurses see the actual veins while taking blood. The opportunities are almost endless.

5) Social media and its effects

It is not a real and unique technology, but the whole social media era played a huge role in the initiation of the so-called Empowered Patient or the Participatory Healthcare movement. Now, patients get access to all the information that were only available for medical professionals before. Moreover, they can get connected to other patients dealing with similar problems. See Smart Patients as the example.

6) Direct-to-consumer genomics

With the advances genomic companies have made, now anyone can get access to their own genome sequences. While the cost of this was about 3 billion dollars more than tey years ago, now it is getting close to $1-2,000, and eventually, sequencing will be cheaper than the shipping cost of the sample. Although we cannot make many medical decisions based on the pure data, the analysis of our DNA will soon give us the power of make better decisions about our future. This way, the era of personalized medicine when we only get drugs that are designed to our own genomic background will finally arrive.

7) Surgical and android robots

There are about a thousand da Vinci surgical robots around the world. Medical schools such as the on in Washington started to teach skills to future surgeons which are needed to control the robot instead of manually performing the operation. They are getting more complicated and more intuitive at the same time. Soon, they will be so precise, an intermediary robot will be needed not to translate the lousy vibrations of the human hand into the robot’s laser-precise movements. It might make it possible in regions with doctor shortages to perform simpler tasks by physicians who control the robot from continents away. InTouch Health develops acute care telemedical robots to let the physician be where it is needed at least half virtually.

8) Augmenting human features

If we can repair lost limbs or diseased tissue, only one step is needed to actually augment human capabilities and features. State-of-the-art prosthetic devices such as Touch Bionics i-limb ultra is getting closer to mimicking the human hand. Ekso Bionics has been teaching over 3,000 patients how to learn to walk again with exoskeletons while being paralyzed from the waist down. In a ship factory in South Korea, some workers now work with exoskeletons on a daily basis. What if we can jump higher, run faster, or be smarter just because we can afford to use technologies in and on our bodies? Such issues will have to be discussed on a public level.

What if we can jump higher, run faster, or be smarter just because we can afford to use technologies in and on our bodies?

9) Nanorobots living in our bloodstream

In the far future, robots on the nanoscale could live in our bloodstream and prevent any diseases by alerting the patient when a condition is about to develop. They could interact with our organs, measure every health parameter and intervene when needed. From the other side, imagine how many changes it would give to bioterrorism and how our privacy could be hurt. We will have to find the right balance between these before the technology becomes available. New technologies will finally help medical professionals focus more on the patient as a human being instead of spending time hunting down pertinent information. They will be able to do what they do best: provide care with expertise. In turn, patients will get the chance to be equal partners in this process taking matters into their own hands. But only if we are prepared.

The future of healthcare is only going to be positive if we prepare for using disruptive technologies in everyday medicine in a way that we don’t just keep the human touch but further improve it.

* Bertalan Meskó, PhD in Genomics, is a medical futurist who has given more than 500 presentations to institutions including Yale, Stanford, and Harvard universities; the center of the World Health Organization; and the Singularity University. He is the founder of Medicalfuturist.com, a website that provides daily news about the future of medicine, and Webicina.com, the first service to curate medical and health-related social media resources for patients and medical professionals. He is the author of My Health: Upgraded and The Guide to the Future of Medicine books; as well as the Social Media in Clinical Practice handbook. He is the founder of the award-winning medical blog Scienceroll.com; and the founder and lecturer of the Social Media in Medicine online and offline university course.