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Shafi Ahmed

Future of medicine

The pandemic has turbo-charged developments in medical tech. Here are the most exciting innovations to look out for in 2022.

AI and machine learning

Artificial intelligence and deep machine learning have been heralded as the most important fields of technology for the future of healthcare. Patient data has already been used extensively to train algorithms to predict eye damage from retinal scans, abnormalities from images like X-rays and CT scans, cancerous skin lesions as well as organ dysfunction. Automating diagnostics is extremely useful, and now the technology is being used in the real world. Google’s DeepMind has used AI to develop a solution to understand protein folding which could be revolutionary for designing new drugs and understanding disease processes better. Indeed, AI has already been deployed in drug development and clinical trials. AI-powered digital twins - virtual humans designed to accurately represent a real person - could help researchers to define the type of patients that should be included in a clinical trial and those who should be excluded based on certain characteristics, helping to predict outcomes and side effects in real patients. The end result would be trials requiring fewer participants.

Robot surgery

There has been a flurry of activity in the previously closed field of robotic surgery in the last few years. Since 2002, and until very recently, the Da Vinci surgical robot was the only player in town. It has been used in seven million procedures so far and helped cement the use of robots in surgical operations. Robots offer surgeons better visualisation and fine motor control, making complex surgeries more manageable. Now, the robot wars have finally begun with a number of surgical robots entering the market. Cambridge Medical Robotics and its Versius system offers a smaller and more modular device taking up less room in the operation room and offering portability. The question of how small can we go is answered by Medical Micro Instruments with its Symani robot – an advanced system that facilitates microsurgery with wristed micro-instruments designed to improve a surgeon’s ability to access and suture small, delicate anatomy.

Connectivity

The world, and in particular healthcare, needs reliable and superfast connectivity to offer accessibility and new models of care. Starlink, an arm of Elon Musk’s SpaceX, aims to connect the world with satellites and has already deployed over 1,700, allowing us to think seriously about global health and democratisation of medicine. Download speeds of almost 400Mbps, around 16 times base level broadband speed, are becoming more and more widespread. A more terrestrial solution has been the rapid introduction of 5G across parts of the world with a latency of 0.1ms (the time it takes data to start being transferred following a request) and download speeds of up to 1GB/s. Together with edge computing – computing conducted near a data source to minimise processing in a remote data centre - these advances have led to connected smart ambulances in Italy, enabling the paramedic at the scene to transmit live information from a patient using a mixed-reality device.

Remote medicine

We have seen the rise of telemedicine over the last two years which has enabled a remote medical service to be implemented at scale. During the pandemic, the number of remote consultations rose by around 8000% in the US. Terms like telehealth, telecare and total triage have become commonplace in medical settings because of the necessity of treating patients at home. Care is being moved into the community which is more cost effective and more convenient for patients. The question is: will we still need bricks and mortar in the future? More care will be remote with the use of digital sensors and wearable devices to monitor patients’ vital parameters. The Apple watch and AliveCor - which act as electrocardiograms - have been used to monitor atrial fibrillation and have become the first real cases of a wearable device being used routinely in clinical practice. Diabetics are already using digital continuous glucose monitoring systems like Libre, and self-monitoring their condition. They will now have access to the new artificial pancreas that can change glucose levels by infusing insulin automatically. These are the hallmarks of truly personalised care.

Virtual and augmented reality

Both virtual reality and augmented reality are playing an increasingly important role in healthcare. It’s looking like virtual reality will be prescribed as a therapy in the near future. In the US, EaseVRx has obtained FDA approval and uses behavioural therapy techniques to reduce chronic pain. The platform consists of a VR headset and a controller, along with a “breathing amplifier” attached to the headset that directs a patient’s breath toward the headset’s microphone for use in deep breathing exercises. VR is also being used to treat anxiety, PTSD and even as a substitute for an epidural or opioid analgesia during labour. We have even seen a surgical operation being performed using sedation and hypnotherapy in virtual reality. Wearable VR medical tech is also harnessing the technology’s potential. The development of haptic suits and gloves – which provide virtual touch feedback to the wearer - will allow rehabilitation for patients with mobility problems. And the range of smart glasses already on the market (with more on the horizon) could persuade us to eventually give up our smartphones for an augmented heads-up display. Doctors are using these glasses for remote training and we may see them being used in the clinic to interrogate patient data. We may even see a leapfrog onto smart contact lenses like those already being developed by Mojo vision.

 

Shafi Ahmed is an award-winning cancer surgeon working at The Royal London Hospital and co-founder of Medical Realities, a VR education company. He was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2020 for his humanitarian work and global surgical education programmes.