From smart beds to smart sticks

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The health technology is transforming our lives. From spinal cord regeneration and genome editing to 3D printing of human organs, modern technology could soon allow us to overcome diseases and conditions considered incurable today.

Medical science has shifted from curing the human body in recent decades to strengthening it to a point where in some countries, 100 years old will soon become commonplace.

The McKinsey report Living Longer and Healthier Lives predicts that humanity is standing “at the cusp of a healthcare revolution that will eclipse the achievements of past centuries in its speed and impact”.

Scientists have been able to re-engineer immune cells and direct them to help fight cancer – a similar approach could be used to treat a wide range of diseases. Genome editing has the potential for combating and correcting genetic diseases which cost hundreds of thousands of lives each year, the report notes.

Regenerative medicine, 3D printing, advanced sensors, and data analytics are just some of the other areas that can help medical science deliver longer and healthier lives.

“Looking forward, modern technology will soon allow us to overcome diseases and conditions considered incurable today. For example, regenerative medicine holds the potential to recreate a spinal cord to overcome spinal cord injuries or malfunctions. Advances in the understanding of the human genome and gene therapy are enabling and accelerating the treatment of genetic mutations that was inconceivable only a few years ago. Technologies being developed will enable 3D printing (using patient’s cells) of lungs, hearts, and kidneys to overcome organ failure,” the McKinsey report notes.

In addition, chronic diseases that are now difficult to manage will be treated with very different methods. For instance, diabetes could be managed using an electronic skin patch that detects glucose levels in sweat and automatically discharges drugs through micro-needles.

Genetic fingerprinting, possibly at birth, could signal a predisposition for specific disorders or syndromes. Constant monitoring through sensors that record vital statistics and biomarkers could provide an early warning of some impending conditions, such as a heart attack or stroke, and treatment could be delivered before the condition is triggered and permanent damage inflicted.

However, the McKinsey report also points out: “These innovations will also raise new social and moral challenges that will need to be addressed. For one, there are ethical risks from directly intervening in the genome. As Siddhartha Mukherjee argues in his recent book, The Gene: An Intimate History, we cannot be sure that as our ability to correct and coerce our DNA increases, society will show restraint from trying to create superior versions of humans. Second, an older society will have implications on economic productivity and the affordability of western social benefit systems.”

Dublin-based medical entrepreneur, interventional radiologist and nuclear physician, Johnny Walker, is at the forefront of the global digital revolution in healthcare. He predicts the personalised and connected health movement will really take off in the next few years, with people becoming far more responsible for the monitoring and management of their own health and wellbeing, and paying far less visits to their GPs.

“Through wearable devices, people can track metrics like pulse rate, blood pressure and blood sugar levels. These measurements are fed into a live dashboard which can be accessed by their asthma or diabetes care team for example on a smartphone.”

Walker also predicts that Artificial Intelligence (AI) will take on a very real role in diagnostics with super computers like IBM’s Watson doing a first read of MRI and CT scans, for example, and coming up with the most likely diagnosis.

“Personal genomics will be huge with tests identifying genetic risk profiles for many diseases in utero. In onco-genomics, a simple blood test can identify tumour oncotypes. It’s very personalised and predictive, and if you can predict, you can prevent.”

Animation and gaming will come into the world of medicine more and more, according to Walker, educating patients prior to procedures and incentivising them to carry out their rehab exercises afterwards.

The use of robots will become more common, Walker believes, not only in performing surgical procedures, but in caring for patients, eg lifting them in and out of chairs, turning them in bed and ensuring they take their meds.

Walker believes Blockchain has the potential to be the “silver bullet” in terms of an international health record that can transcend geographical borders. All of the world’s patient records would be embedded in digital code and stored in transparent, shared databases where they would be protected from deletion, tampering, and revision.

“We need to become less geographical in our thinking and truly global thinking to deal with the huge onslaught of the ageing population coming at us. We need somebody in Government with real courage to say we should be embracing a digital world. Our current acute healthcare system is bent and buckled, but not yet broken, and it’s not in anybody’s interests for it to break. We need to keep the acute services for acute cases and deal with as many non-acute and chronic ailments as we can at home and in the community,” says Walker.

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