By Reenita Das
Partner and Senior Vice President
Frost & Sullivan
As healthcare moves to a model of “any time”, “any place,” “continuous” and “personalized” care, it is important to identify the key technologies that will enable this transition and work toward their implementation into different care settings. Frost & Sullivan’s Visionary Healthcare research has identified several technologies that are most likely to impact healthcare paradigms by 2025.
Figure 1: Healthcare World in 2025
It is interesting to note that technological advances in the fields of computing, machine learning, nanotechnology and electronics are all playing a role in helping reshape the industry. The figure below provides an overview of the top technologies that will change this industry dramatically, and an analysis of the timeframe for their commercialization and maturation.
Figure 2: Timeframe for Commercialization and Maturation of Top 2025 Technologies
We are now beginning to see larger datasets in healthcare research and delivery to analyze and make sense of entire genome sequences, impact of environmental, behavioral and hereditary factors on health, population health data, patient generated health data, etc. The amount of such data becoming available is only set to increase exponentially by 2025. The available computing prowess, even those of supercomputers, will not be adequate to generate quick and actionable insights from such large data sets. But quantum computing, that has a far greater calculation capacity than traditional computers, could help solve some of the highly complex healthcare problems. One noteworthy company in this field is Canadian D-Wave Systems, which boasts of clients like NASA and Google. However, the possibility of widespread quantum computing is prevented by the problem of quantum incoherence, which, it is hoped, will be solved sometime soon.
While the human capacity to analyze and make deductions is superior to any other species on the planet, it is still limited in terms of the volume of information that can be processed quickly. Artificial intelligence makes this process faster by several degrees and far more efficient than humanly possible. IBM’s Watson, for example, can read 40 million documents in 15 seconds. With machine learning capabilities, the technology’s healthcare applications are boundless. Some of the applications currently being developed are assisting physicians and radiologists to make accurate diagnoses (IBM Watson Health), predicting which potential therapeutic candidates are most likely to work as efficient drugs (Atomwise) and mining medical records data to improve healthcare service delivery (Google DeepMind Health).
Robots have been in healthcare for a long time now – the Da Vinci surgical robot is a case in point. But several other robotic applications are emerging and we should expect a lot more robots operating in the healthcare space by 2025. Consider the simplistic telepresence robots like those offered by InTouch Health, allowing the doctor to ‘move around’ and examine patients, while being seated at his or her computer at a distant location. Or Aethon’s TUG robots that help hospitals internally transport their pharmacy supplies, lab samples, patient food, clean or soiled linen or even trash, all by itself. Then there are the patient and elderly care robots that help in lifting patients from beds to wheelchairs and back, like the Robear robot or the Riba robot in Japan. Finally, robots can also play a role in pediatric therapy for autism disorders, phobias and as distractions; several examples exist - Phobot, PARO, NAO and Milo.
At the nanoscale, robots can play entirely different roles, this time inside the human body, traveling through bloodstreams. Ongoing research is exploring the potential nanorobots can have in vitals monitoring, performing body functions (e.g. carrying oxygen, destroying infectious agents like bacteria), targeted drug delivery (e.g. cancer therapy, blood clotting) or even to perform nanoscale, in situ surgeries. The actual list of applications of nanomedicine, the umbrella term for nanotechnology applications in healthcare, is even larger and fascinating. It includes assisting biological research (cell simulations), being intracellular sensors for diagnostics and playing a role in molecular medicine (genetic therapy). At the very least, we should see the beginning of testing of such applications by 2025.
The year 2025 should bring not just the introduction of robots inside our bodies, but also the transformation of the human body itself into partial robotic beings. This can manifest in several forms, some of which are visible even today – limb replacements, organ replacements, internal electronics, and capabilities, limbs or senses that are enhanced in function than their normal counterparts. Apart from the ‘bionic’ prosthetics movement, an estimated 30,000 – 50,000 people already have an implanted RFID chip inside their bodies. In the future, we are likely to see enhanced capabilities in terms of vision, hearing or with limbs, especially in defense application areas. Artificial pancreas is a subject of intense research, and it is likely that more sophisticated versions of these devices may even be implanted in the human body in the future – to supplement or even completely replace normal pancreas.
Another form of cyborgization is the use of brain-computer interfaces to connect a wired brain directly with an external device. Apart from the research and brain-mapping applications currently in use, the technology is being developed for ‘neural bypass’ applications - helping paralyzed patients regain control of their limbs via ‘external’ connections to the limbs. Similar applications are being developed wherein the body’s neural framework is tapped using electric stimulation to modify certain functions. Existing examples include cochlear implants and pacemakers, while applications being developed include retinal implants (to restore sight) and spinal cord stimulators (for pain relief).
Medical Tricorder (Diagnostic Device)
Taking cue from the device popularized by the Star Wars franchise, efforts are aimed at developing a hand-held portable diagnostic device that can scan the human body and diagnose their ailments within seconds. While the fantasy version of the device could do this, current efforts are more realistic in their approach. The $10 million Qualcomm Tricorder X Prize competition launched in 2012, for example, aims at diagnosing 13 medical conditions (10 required, 3 elective) including strep throat, sleep apnea and atrial fibrillation, with a consumer-friendly interface device weighing no more than 5 pounds. With the winners of this competition set to be announced in 2017, we could expect such devices to be commercially available by 2025.
After self-diagnosing using a tricorder, patients in 2025 will want to get in touch with a doctor. Of course, telehealth will be an option, but there might be another option available for satisfying queries or getting more information on the diagnosis – just like the generic voice assistants available today. While Siri or Cortana are voice-only assistants, the Dr. WebMD of 2025 can be a digital avatar that can appear in holographic projections to assist patients and caregivers with their healthcare queries. The holographic projection of a human doctor, backed by artificial intelligence technologies, will allow for it to handle several queries simultaneously. Beyond answering queries, it could schedule appointments for a physical checkup with a doctor in your network, and share notes of your conversation with a doctor, in a digital-physical care coordination model.
Augmented / Virtual Reality
The applications of the two related technologies are manifold and relevant to both sides of the care delivery equation – providers as well as patients. Providers can benefit from using enabled glasses for medical education - to study the human anatomy, for example, and for observing and studying surgeries as they were performed. Augmented reality could also be used during live surgeries to ‘see through’ anatomical structures to know the location of organs and blood vessels. On the patient side, one of the most advanced applications that are already in use is the treatment of various phobias and other mental health disorders. As the technology advances, we can expect more advanced applications to emerge by 2025, especially for healthcare providers.
3D printing is a well-known technology with several existing applications in healthcare, including orthopedic devices and several implants. Another application that is being considered is of 3D printed medicines, which can allow alteration of daily dosage and enable personalized medicine by customizing formulations of the drugs. Another niche that is now opening up is that of 3D Bioprinting – the possibility of ‘printing’ tissues or even organs. Applications range from skin tissue for burn victims to organ replacements for patients. Tissues thus printed can also be used in drug development, a service currently being offered by Organovo.
Companies within the healthcare industry must examine and study the impact of these technologies on their business, as well as investing into utilizing these in the future if they are to continue to sustain themselves profitably in the new environment.
This article was written with contributions from Siddharth Shah, Research Analyst and Venkat Rajan, Global Director, both from the Visionary Health program of Frost & Sullivan’s Transformation Health practice.