TechMatters: 5 ways technology will impact medicine in 2020

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TechMatters is a semi-regular column exploring the intersection between tech and our lives, why it matters, and how it’s helping to improve our quality and vitality of life. 

Here, we will profile new startups and products that have a vested interest in the betterment of life on a physical, emotional, and humanitarian level.

Enabling medical advances is one of the best ways that technology can positively impact human lives. Innovations developed in the last decade include a smart shirt that helps deaf people “feel” music, a bionic eye that allowed a blind man to see, and artificial muscles that could one day revolutionize artificial limbs.

These are just three examples out of thousands of medical advancements that researchers have made over the last 10 years. One of the greatest things about technology is that it never slows down. Instead, it continues to evolve, expand, and deliver even more life-changing breakthroughs.

January 1, 2020, marks the start of a new decade. The following technologies will undoubtedly help produce even more medical successes in the new year and beyond.

Medical Robots

From law enforcement to the automotive industry to space exploration, robots are working in an increasing number of fields. Medical robots seem to have a bright future.

According to the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, “The global medical robotics market was valued at $7.24 billion in 2015 and is expected to grow to $20 billion by 2023.”

Many hospitals currently use the da Vinci surgical system. It allows surgeons to perform robotically-assisted, minimally-invasive surgeries by sitting at a console and directing the movements of advanced instruments through the procedure. The mini tools move like a human hand but have a greater range of motion. Their small size also allows surgeons to work through small incisions, which is better for patients.

Robots assist in many other medical applications, including“telepresence.” Using this technique, robots help doctors examine and treat patients remotely. The automated assistants can also sanitize and disinfect surfaces in healthcare settings, dispense prescriptions, and transport items like supplies, meals, and medicine throughout hospitals and clinics.

Next year, robotic operations in medical applications will likely expand. For example, microbots could internally deliver medicine to affected parts of a patient’s body to treat a bacterial infection.

AR and VR Applications

Augmented reality and virtual reality tech will move beyond the gaming industry in the future. In fact, a 2016 Goldman Sachs report predicted that the augmented reality healthcare market will reach about $5.1 billion, with approximately 3.4 million users, by 2025.

Today, surgical residents and other healthcare workers use virtual reality training systems to model real-life patient situations. The specialized training combines real-life objects with computer-generated images to take students through the proper procedures for multiple medical scenarios.

AR simulators can also help neurosurgeons identify enlarged blood vessels and plot the safest strategy for removing a tumor.

Wearable Devices

Smartwatches and fitness trackers have helped bring physical fitness into the digital age. When paired with fitness apps, device wearers can customize workout programs and instantly track their progress.

Some wearables are even making life-saving impacts. For instance, the Apple Watch can check for unusually high or low heart rates and irregular heart rhythms (which could suggest atrial fibrillation or Afib.) Once the wearer receives a notification about an abnormal heart rate or pattern, he/she can seek medical attention accordingly. Plus, a built-in fall detection feature alerts emergency services if a user doesn’t respond to prompts after a fall is detected.

Other innovative devices help prevent Alzheimer’s patients from wandering, offer visual information to sight-impaired people, detect sleep apnea symptoms, and so much more.

As technology advances into 2020, wearables will undoubtedly play a more significant role in the medical arena.

Genomic Advances

The National Human Genome Research Institute defines “genomics” as “The study of all of a person’s genes (the genome), including interactions of those genes with each other and with the person’s environment.”

Medical professionals use this information to develop personalized treatment plans for patients with a variety of disorders. For example, genomic medicine is making important impacts in oncology, infectious diseases, pharmacology, and more.

Technological advancements in artificial intelligence and machine learning are helping advance genomic disciplines.

Computers can analyze genes and gene mutations that cause specific disorders and diseases very quickly. This rapid analysis helps medical teams better understand how they occur. Armed with this information, doctors can then decide how to treat a condition. In some cases, they can even learn how to eradicate a disease.

Genomic medicine is making strides in many areas, including understanding causes of intellectual disabilities, detecting organ transplant rejection, and diagnosing children in neonatal native intensive care with a broader range of rare diseases within 50 hours of birth.

Overall, genomic researchers are aiming for technology-assisted, rapid diagnoses to prompt early treatment and medical interventions that can make a positive difference in patients’ lives.

3D Printing

It might seem hard to believe that 3D printing has already been around for over 30 years. Over the past few decades, the game-changing technology has become much more sophisticated. Currently, 3D printing is used in many different applications. These include the aerospace industry, construction, musical instruments, electronics, and many more.

Next year, 3D printing will continue to revolutionize medicine. The cutting-edge technology will allow for better-fitting prosthetics. Eventually, 3D printers will become more adept at creating tissues and entire organs, like a human heart, for transplant. At this point, future uses for 3D printing seem limitless.