In the Information Age, technology has transformed every part of our society, from the way we communicate to the way we work, and as the 21st century draws on, the same forces that are shaping our social and work environment are changing the way that health care is delivered.
The rise of big data promises to fuel new treatments and faster analysis of a range of diseases and public health issues, while new technology is changing every aspect of medical provision, from the way that surgery and treatment is delivered to the collation and analysis of patient data through mobile and even wearable technology.
There has been an explosion in the use of wearable technology in recent years. By the summer of 2015, the Health Research Institute was reporting that a fifth of US consumers owned a wearable tech product, and over 70% of consumers aged between 16 and 24 said that they would be interested in owning a wearable device such as a smart band.
Health care apps and gadgets designed for wearable tech have the potential to help the 140 million people in the US who are living with at least one long-term medical condition. Wearable medical tech is already appearing, including headsets that can keep a check on brain activity, cardiac-monitoring chest bands, and remote diabetes monitors that can analyze glucose levels. In the near future, it is likely that there will be wearable technology that can monitor blood pressure changes and alert a doctor, and this century is also likely to see the development of chips that can float in the bloodstream and monitor significant changes.
The Power of the Smartphone
The smartphone is ubiquitous. It has been estimated that by 2020, around 80% of adults will own at least one smartphone, making this technology ideal as a platform for the medical care of the future. As early as 2010, a campaign by the Healthy Moms Healthy Babies Coalition arranged for pregnant women and new moms to receive regular text messages giving them useful information on how to care for themselves and their infants.
In the developing world, mobile tech is now regularly used for medical treatment. Physicians in Nepal have introduced a mobile-based antenatal care system that has drastically improved the speed and efficiency of the care they receive, and in Tanzania, 125,000 women have signed up for a mobile messaging service offering vital health information.
Renowned ophthalmologist and researcher Dr. Rohit Varma is one of a number of medical professionals in the US who have been exploring the possibilities offered by new methods of engaging patients. He is working with a company that is pioneering the development of augmented reality visualization systems in surgical applications, which has the potential to transform the way that surgery is planned and delivered.
The development of remote technology has also had an impact on the way that health care is delivered. Some clinics and hospitals have been installing routers in the homes of patients that make it possible for them to collect vital data on blood pressure, oxygen levels and glucose, which enables physicians to make adjustments to care regimes without having to call the patients into hospital, and to diagnose serious health changes and complications.
Some medical providers are also offering video consultations by using Skype or similar video conferencing systems. E-health consultations have the potential to dramatically reduce the cost and inconvenience of in-patient treatment, allowing physicians to carry out assessments, make diagnoses and prescribe treatment without the patient leaving their home. Some doctors are even training to specialize in offering “virtual” consultations.
The Human Touch
The rapid development of health technology is facilitating the creation of health care practices that can dramatically change the relationship between doctor and patient, while enabling patients to be more involved in the process of health care. However, at the same time, one of the challenges of the 21st century will be to ensure that there remains a human element to the care that patients receive, and that amid the rapid take-up of medical technology, physicians and other health care professionals will still have the means of interacting with their patients in a meaningful way.
From wearable technology to remote consultations, the 21st century has already seen some significant developments in the way that health care is delivered and accessed, and this pace of change is likely to accelerate over the next few decades.