As usual, the new year is a good time for summarising trends in technology development and their possible impact on healthcare.“We are amidst the 4th Industrial Revolution, and technology is evolving faster than ever. Companies and individuals that don’t keep up with some of the major tech trends run the risk of being left behind”, writes Bernard Marr on Forbes.

The change of paradigm is in the air, as demonstrated for example by the radical vision to inspire R&D indicated by the European Innovation Council (EIC) as one of the three Future & Emerging Technologies (FET) gatekeepers to prepare the Pilot EIC Pathfinder calls planned for 2019 and 2020. The other two are the identification of ambitious science-to-technology breakthrough technological targets (to confirm this vision with a first proof of concept) and an ambitious interdisciplinary research that opens up new areas of investigation (see here more details).

We resume some of the more interesting recent advancements in different healthcare fields.

The era of digital technologies

Digital technologies are at the forefront of new models of health, and many innovations are close to reach commercial applications. The era of quantum computing may also be closer, according to The Medical Futurist, after Google’s AI Quantum announcement to have reached the “quantum supremacy”, with demonstration that a programmable quantum computer can outperform the current most powerful conventional processors (see here more details). 

The enormous speed of quantum computing might support improved modalities to run research, for example, impacting on the modelling and design capabilities needed to develop a new drug substance or to greatly lower the time and costs for DNA sequencing. But still many years might be necessary, according to the editorial published in Nature, to reach effective applications of this technology.

Much closer is the advent of artificial intelligence (AI), that may allow for a $100 billion in annual savings for medicine and pharma, said Bernard Marr on Forbes. 

AI’s algorithms are able to deep learn from data stored in databases, and they shall increasingly support medical doctors in making the correct diagnosis or in the choice of the most appropriate therapy. And extended reality (XR) – including virtual, augmented and mixed reality – may better assist the training of doctors, for example studying anatomy in a more realistic way, or exposing them to “on-field” surgery or rare disease management. 

In the industrial sector, AI is yet a quite mature technology to support customer and to streamline the business operations, according to Bernard Marr. The number of providers of more tailored “as-a-service” platforms is expected to increase this year. 

How to improve clinical activities

Gene editing technologies used to manipulate DNA and cells are expected to support the development of an increasing number of new therapeutic interventions, mainly in oncology, autoimmune and rare diseases. 

Voice recognition and dictation may help to reach a more efficient use of electronic health records, according to The Medical Futurist, to leave more time to doctors for the face-to-face relationship with their patients. And these last ones may benefit of chatbots installed on smart devices to help them following the correct lifestyle and the assumption of therapies, on the basis of individuals habits. Sleep tracking, heart rate and activity collected via wearables may also assist the AI-mediated symptoms interpretation without the need to visit a doctor (see also here).

This sort of transition would fully support the advent of the “4P” medicine: predictive, preventive, personalised and participatory, and it may result in the availability of a “digital twin” replicating the health conditions of each individual. 

And the advent of super-fast 5G mobile networks shall fully implement the Internet of Things, thus allowing to extensively interconnect the medical devices used at home by patients with the central resources (EHRs, databases and expert medical advice) which may profoundly remodel the healthcare systems and the way cures are administered. Concerns about the safety of the 5G technology are still limiting  in many countries the shift towards this direction. Even blood or urine tests might be run at home without need to visit the lab, adds The Medical Futurist, just sending a sample of bodily fluids to one of the companies that, in the US, offer this sort of service. 

The Walmartisation of healthcare is an emerging trend for Time: the retailer company has already opened in the US its first Health Center, “a medical mall where customers can get primary care, vision tests, dental exams and root canals; lab work, X-rays and EKGs; counseling; even fitness and diet classes”. Low prices to attract consumers are the key ingredient of this approach that, according to the article, if successful it might have a great impact to lower prices of more traditional health services.

How to boost many activities

Drones may be used to transport biological samples and medical supplies, suggests Time, and many experimentation are already ongoing in US and Switzerland. The work organisation may benefit of the creation of remote teams to overcome the difficulty to attract new talents, suggests Maren Thomas Bannon on Forbes.

Infrastructure platforms may help companies in building a better relationship with their customers, for example to make payments more user-friendly or to facilitate startups to enter the fintech environment to look for investors. Digital activities may benefit of the blockchain technologies able to track each single passage along a complex chain of different activities, not only in the fintech area but also, for example, to manage a pharmaceutical supply chain or to keep track of medical and health information (see here more details).

Pharmaceutical development and manufacturing may greatly benefit from 3D printing, a quite mature technology which is not limited to the obtainment of surgical instruments or medical devices; its great potential may see the bio-printing of tissues or organ for transplants, suggests Bernard Marr. 

Clinical development may also explore new models, such as the one of the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy, a network of US top institutions. As explained by Time, each of the members of the network “agreed to accept an approval decision by any of their respective Institutional Review Boards” in order to greatly reduce the time and costs needed to activate major clinical trials.  

Less rich countries may benefit of new diagnostic opportunities, adds Time, for example using a miniaturised ultrasound imaging device which costs just 2,000 $ and can be easily connected to an app on the smartphone. 

Robots to enhance many capabilities

Surgical robots such as Da Vinci are already supporting doctors in their activities. According to Bernard Marr, the new year may also see the advent of micro-bot able to target a specific part of the body in order to reduce the adverse effects of a certain therapy.

Exoskeletons may soon restore the ability to move for tetraplegics, or support surgeons to reduce their fatigue; this last type of application would have been already tested in Russia, says The Medical Futurist. But the high costs of such devices may result in a barrier to access for many people, together with the need to reduce their weight and dimensions.