The future of healthcare: the proliferation of data
The emergency of the COVID-19 pandemic has led to an unprecedented digital transformation across healthcare. As noted in the latest UK Department of Health and Social Affairs (DHSC) policy document, the measures needed to manage the impact of COVID-19 have, in many ways, proven once again that ‘data saves Lives “.
Introducing health measures to reliably track symptoms of COVID-19 and reduce transmission rates remains critical to society’s continued reopening, and is an example of how technology can be applied to manage future health crises.
Engineers are at the forefront of driving new modes of health technology that will enable a patient-centered approach to health and wellness for the 21st century. Key technologies in this dynamic will take the form of advanced wearable devices, communication systems and a new generation of surgical devices.
The rise of portable devices
Wearable technologies are already very popular for fitness and exercise, with portable devices accessible on multiple devices, or to meet general lifestyle demands such as linking to home systems.
However, wearable devices continue to transform healthcare delivery, a trend that is expected to continue in the years to come. There has been significant growth in this area, specifically monitoring various health indicators including respiration, blood pressure, and temperature.
The proliferation of portable electronic health monitoring devices, from their inception in the 1990s to the present day, is in part a reflection of the individual desire to become more responsible for their own health and well-being. These technologies have also brought patients closer to their own healthcare and fitness, as instant communication is now possible. In fact, patient data can now be stored and communicated in a continuous stream for live monitoring purposes.
Advances in electronics
The fundamental catalysts for wearable technologies have been developments in electronics and power supply, for example in flexible circuits and high-speed wireless communications, and nanogenerators as far as energy is concerned.
The configuration and cost of wearable technologies are changing rapidly, in part due to user demands. Reliable and constant monitoring and communication require a very robust power supply. Traditionally, chemical cell batteries have been the preferred option, but with increased technological demands, energy harvesting solutions have been developed for portable devices.
These include harvesting the upper or lower limbs, such as walking. Harvesters can take either piezoelectric or triboelectric forms, allowing self-powered functionality eliminating the need for chemical batteries and opening up the possibility of integrating harvesting capacity directly into the structure of the device.
As these technologies continue to evolve, the amount of data that can be captured and processed will increase. By acquiring several data streams, it will be possible to build a complete profile of a person’s health.
However, healthcare professionals have reported concerns about the value of the data collected and the confidentiality of the data. These need to be taken into account before healthcare systems adopt wearable devices. Nonetheless, the rise of wearable devices for health monitoring is expected to continue, with new concepts and materials intended to be incorporated into faster and more reliable communications.
âBig dataâ and proactive healthcare
With our increased reliance on wearable devices, âbig dataâ will need to be properly managed and administered for the benefit of patients. Indeed, big data has the potential to confer benefits, including lowering the cost of treatments and predicting disease outbreaks much faster than we have been able to do in recent years.
Patients’ health, routines, diet and general lifestyle are just a few parameters that could be used to map the general profile of communities from a healthcare perspective and implement useful strategies.
For example, maybe there are geographic locations that would benefit from a different staffing level than another. Or general food consumption trends in a particular community that could indicate an increased risk of cancer. Of course, there are constraints that need to be addressed first, whether it’s data privacy or the slow adoption of the technology.
Future surgeries and childbirth
The focus is now on combining advanced mathematical algorithms, artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics, with conventional surgical procedures to enable highly precise operations that would not have been possible before.
The transition to intelligence-based surgery is based in part on the desire to offer surgeries tailored to the individual, for significantly improved results. For example, how deep learning can predict complications or determine surgical risk. Machine learning can be used to screen for disease, and even in the administration of anesthesia. These abilities are invaluable and can help develop the optimal course of action for the treatment and recovery of patients.
When it comes to AI, there are growing reports of robotics being used to aid and improve surgical procedures. With rapid improvements in electronics, calculation algorithms and control, many recent developments have real potential for future application.
For example, minimally invasive heart surgery performed with robotic assistance has reduced blood loss to such an extent that patients, in some cases, can return to relative normalcy within two weeks. Other reports confirm these benefits, including reduced risk of complications and reduced recovery times, as much smaller incisions in the body are possible. However, it has been reported that improved robotic surgery brings only modest improvements in outcome. Nevertheless, it is clear that these technologies will benefit all patients.
An exciting development in recent years has been the advent of UltraSurge, a Â£ 6.1million multi-agency program undertaken at the universities of Glasgow, Edinburgh, Birmingham, Leeds and Southampton in the UK. United to revolutionize surgery by integrating ultrasound technologies. The benefits include improved precision, reduced force required for incision, selectivity to tissue to be cut, and the potential for reduced tissue necrosis, thereby improving patient recovery time. Indeed, it is expected that this ultrasound-assisted surgery will become widespread in the years to come.
Needless to say, the pandemic has accelerated the digital transformation of healthcare and the rise of data. The next challenge will be how to make sense of all this information and use it to our advantage.