“Superior doctors prevent the disease from happennig, mediocre doctors treat the disease before fully evident, inferior doctors treat the disease after it is apparent to everyone.”
The Digital Transformation –DT- is pervasive, I cannot imagine a single area not affected by it. However, if I would have to pick up one that will be completely disrupted by the DT and whose disruptions will affect the Society as a whole, the Individual and all what’s in between (business, economy, regulation, culture) I will choose Health Care. This is why I am starting with it in this series of post on DT using as springboard a recent special issue of Media 2000 prepared by the Italian EIT ICT Labs (now EIT Digital) Association (the articles are in Italian but you can take that as an opportunity to learn Italian or use an on-line translator to get the gist of them).
The “dream” of Huangdi Neijing, having a doctor that could prevent diseases from happening may no longer be a dream in the next decade. Of course, vaccination is already a fulfillment of that dream, we no longer have to suffer from smallpox and many other scourges that killed millions of our ancestors but we still have plenty of other diseases, cancer just to mention one. Will it be possible for humanity to become disease free in the future? I bet so, and digital health care will be a crucial component in that.
Digital Health Care can be seen as the convergence of three main areas, Digital Health, a set of advanced tools –some already available today- improving the monitoring and cure possibilities, Precision Health customizing health care to the single individual (something that is basically not existing today where medicine is based on statistical data) and Digital Twins.
Let’s consider each of these, starting with Digital Health in this post and looking at the others, in a crescendo, in the following ones.
We already have tools in our hands that can serve as monitoring devices, the smartphones. Using your smartphone camera you can measure your pulse, and with some more sophisticated software you can even detect anomalies in your blood circulation, like incipient atherosclerosis in the carotids and even detect microbes (smartphone microscopy). By adding some components to your smartphone you can perform some basic analyses (this is actually being used in remote areas where medical labs are not available).
By placing sensors, some in the form of smart tattoo, on your body you can intercept emerging symptoms, even before you become aware that something may be wrong.
Medical devices will be moving from the hospital environment to our homes and eventually they will become wearable, following every steps we take. Further down the lane we will see the growth of implantable and ingestible sensors (and dispensers) for a much more accurate monitoring (and immediate reaction whenever needed). Insulin pumps are clearly an example in this deirection.
Telemedicine is now an “old” word but it is actually becoming feasible in everyday life, as experimented in Songdu where every home has been designed to include telemedicine facilities as standard equipment. Virtual and Augmented Reality will give a boost to telemedicine in the coming decades.
Hospitals are also shifting from a “place” to a service, with hospital on the move. Robotics, handheld medical devices (handheld ultrasounds, lab on a chip, microfluidics,…) will support mobile clinics, first targeting remote areas and then serving rural areas and eventually urban areas. The hospitals will shrink as less people will need them and as more and more procedures can take place outside of the hospital. We are already in the first wave with the growing number of procedures that take place in a Day-hospital (procedures that just few years ago would have implied a week in the hospital are now carried our in less than a hour after which you walk back to your home). Medical diagnostic devices that today are bulky (and expensive) will shrink in size and cost, using new technologies like ultrasound-chip arrays.
Our bodies will also be reshaped by this Digital Health, embedding nanobots, replacing parts using 3D printed organs and organs on a chip (these are now used for running experiments but in the future, may be beyond 2050, we can have artificial organs –on a chip- as substitute/replacement as well as augmentation).
Now, one question could be: why is this called “digital health”? What is the difference between the various devices described and the ones that have been used for years, apart from the fact of being more performant, cheaper and portable? Well, the huge difference is that all these devices, either directly or indirectly can only exist in a digital environment. The devices themselves produce data or are steered by data. Without computers they would be useless. It is not like a stethoscope that requires a pair of ears attached to a good, expert brain. Without computer and software all the devices mentioned would not be of help. A doctor need software to interpret the data generated by the device. And, of course, those data can be leveraged to provide much more information once they are correlated, as we will see in a future post on digital twins.