The advancement of Technology in Healthcare
Since the creation of vaccines in the 18th Century, healthcare has continued to advance and improve through the use of technology. From the smallpox vaccine in 1796 through to anaesthetics in 1846 up to modern day DNA sequencing and genetics, technology has been at the forefront of medical research.
But how does technology help in every day healthcare and medicine and is the improvement in healthcare thanks to, or in spite of, technological advances?
Technology has improved our personal care and our awareness of our bodies outside of the medical environment. Our smartwatches monitor our heart rate, sleeping, exercise rates and much more and can be used in our holistic approach to health. Indeed, smartwatches have been thanked for saving lives – such as the 42-year-old man whose Fitbit showed he was experiencing atrial fibrillation and a number of stories where sleep apnoea has been discovered from smartwatches.
There has also been an increase in wearable tech to monitor known health conditions. Diabetics can now wear a device that monitors their blood sugar, rather than having to take samples of blood at regular intervals and blood pressure and heart rate can be measured through easy technology alerting to potential medical conditions.
Medical data recorders, affectionately known as Tricorders (Beam me up Scotty!!) take this one step further and can recognise 34 different health conditions such as stroke, pneumonia and diabetes in a patient’s home without any medical training – saving on diagnostic time and unnecessary procedures.
The increase in the amount of information available on the internet and social media has helped medical professionals increase the awareness of conditions and encourage people to be tested if they are showing symptoms. Jade Goody’s heart-breaking smear test campaign generated an additional half a million extra cervical screenings during 2008-2009. Whilst more information is generally considered a good thing, there is a downside of people becoming Google Doctors – searching their symptoms online and automatically finding the worst possible scenario and leaving us in danger of becoming a society of hypochondriacs thus putting increase burden on our already over-stretched health service.
A fine balance is needed – obviously awareness of symptoms and conditions is vital to encourage the population to be proactive in their health but where this goes too far, we see doctor’s surgeries clogged up with people convinced they have the latest deadly condition.
Within GP surgeries, technology has caused a change in how they operate. Long gone are the days of medical records being stored on cards that GPs would update manually after each appointment or home visit. The improvement in video technology has enabled GPs to complete virtual home visits, rather than attending in person, meaning more patients can be seen and at-risk patients do not have to attend the surgery. This has been particularly prevalent during Covid-19 and looks set to continue post recovery as it has improved efficiency and productivity for doctors. This again though comes with a down-side. Seeing a patient face to face allows the doctor to review their health based on what is being said and what is not being said – there is anecdotal evidence of conditions such as depression or domestic violence being missed as the doctor is focussing on what the patient is showing them on the video call and they do not have that private 1 on 1 time with the patient.
Medical records being digitalised has improved the accuracy and speed of medical records being updated. Now if you move and change surgeries, your medical records are automatically available at the new surgery and links to minor injury clinics and hospitals to keep your records updated in real-time – no more posting of hand-written medical cards which can easily be lost in the post. Prescriptions can be sent automatically to pharmacies which is not only convenient but can help prevent misreading and therefore mis-prescribing medication. With the NHS app patients can view their previous conditions and prescriptions. Digitalisation is a major advancement in medical records but as we saw with the NHS WannaCry ransom attack – where 70,000 NHS devices were infected with the ransomware attack, data security has to be at the forefront of patient medical record systems. The data stored by the NHS is the most sensitive personal data available and despite improvements in data security, in 2018 200 NHS hospitals still failed cybersecurity checks.
In hospitals, advancements in technology have revolutionised how patients are cared for.
Improvements in communications between departments has shortened the turn-around time for things like X-Rays and MRIs. No longer do they have to be printed and then hand-delivered or posted back to consultants, now they are loaded up and available for review almost instantaneously thus improving speed of diagnosis and reducing the risk of lost diagnostic tools. Patients moving between departments is also a much smoother process now that medical records are digitalised – the unsecure data chart is now digitalised and stored securely so only those that need to read it have access to it.
Lasers have massively improved recovery time for surgeries and procedures and reduced the risk of infection of open wounds. The use of lasers has improved the ability to remove tumours in difficult to access areas and reduced the amount of healthy tissue damage such as with lung tumours where large areas of the lung are no longer needed to be removed in all cases. Laser eye surgery is now more common-place than ever before and provides longer lasting results.
The increase in use of robotics has improved precision and flexibility in surgery and has increased the amount of delicate and complex procedures that are undertaken with fewer complications such as infection, blood loss and scarring.
3D printers also help – not only by allowing life size replicas of major organs and bones to be produced for surgeons to practice on, but by also being able to 3D print implants and in joint repair. Bioimplants have improved in recent years since the first 3D printed hip joint in 2007 reducing the wait time whilst implants are produced and increasing the longevity of the implant.
So, technology has massively improved both diagnosis, procedure and recovery time in healthcare but what does the next stage of the evolution bring.
It seems that nanomedicine is the next go-to area in technology advancement. Trials are underway of using nanoparticles to target deliver drugs directly to tumours as well as nanotech that fights viruses and bacteria. This improvement, alongside improvements in gene therapy and genetics means personalised medicine is on the horizon and improvements in VR and AR may mean that the surgeon won’t necessarily need to be in the same hospital or even the same country as the patient.
https://www.menshealth.com/health/a19518448/fitbit-helps-save-mans-life/ https://www.proclinical.com/blogs/2021-6/the-top-10-medical-advances-in-history https://www.healthtechzone.com/topics/healthcare/articles/2018/01/16/436425-5-ways-technology-has-improved-health-industry.htm