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An Experts' Guide to Future Medical Advancement

Most days, I feel like I live in the future.I call the smartest people I know and ask them questions about their expertise. Then I share what I learn w...

Most days, I feel like I live in the future.

I call the smartest people I know and ask them questions about their expertise. Then I share what I learn with you.

We all value our health, and we all want to be happy, vibrant, and pain free. So I interviewed a couple of superstars in the medical technology field, Robin Farmanfarmian and Dr. Bertalan Mesko, The Medical Futurist (more on these two in a moment).

What I learned was inspiring, to say the least. Amazing technologies are coming to medicine and they are able to revolutionize healthcare in aspects we did not think before that it would be possible. We asked healthcare thought leaders how they see those changes, which the most promising medical technologies can bring into the life of patients and physicians.

For doing so, Robin Farmanfarmaian, entrepreneur and author of the best-selling book The Patient as CEO and thought-leader for patient empowerment, provides the patient perspective. Farmanfarmaian believes that exponential and accelerating technology will enable the healthcare consumer, or "unpatient", to be a key decision-maker in medicine. She thinks it is extremely important to give more power into the hands of patients, and technology makes a positive impact regarding this relationship - as well as regarding the whole health industry. Farmanfarmaian knows exactly what she is talking about. As a teenager, she was misdiagnosed with an autoimmune disease that led to 43 hospitalizations and 6 major surgeries.

As she provides the patient perspective, Bertalan Mesko, MD, PhD the author of the Amazon Top 100 "The Guide to the Future of Medicine" will give the input from the doctor's side. Mesko is a physician with a PhD in genomics, founder of the website Webicina, which aims to help patients and physicians find hand-picked medical news and advice they can trust, for free, a popular keynote speaker and thought leader with more than 500 presentations under his belt. Mesko is overtly passionate about shaping the future of health and medicine, giving actionable advice on preparing for the digital revolution in healthcare for medical professionals, pharma companies as well as the wider public.

So now, it is high time to take a closer look at the top 5 medical technologies of the future: robotics, artificial intelligence, health sensors, social media and virtual reality.

1) Robotics

Narrow artificial intelligence already powers chat-bot algorithms that can help you shop, run errands or deal with parking tickets. But what truly excites medical professionals is the possibility of a real, human-sized robot at home which can help you with physical tasks.

Farmanfarmaian believes that at-home robots would allow a patient to no longer depend on family, friends or expensive healthcare professionals. Robots don't get tired, don't get overtime, don't get annoyed, and can do repetitive or heavy tasks without risk of injuring themselves, like RoBear, a bear-shaped robot who lifts a patient out of bed. This is incredibly empowering for patients, giving them back their independence and dignity they may feel they have lost.

Robots can support, assist and extend the service health workers are offering. In jobs with repetitive and monotonous functions they might even obtain the capacity to completely replace humans. Mesko believes they will be able to clean better than the best cleaning-ladies, - just look at the Xenex Robot -, to do repetitive and monotonous tasks without getting depressed, such as Pepper, the little humanoid "social robot", or to assist surgeons in operations just like the da Vinci Surgical System. As recently reported, this industry is about to boom in the near future. Thus, medical robots will ease the life of nurses and doctors alike and enable them to do more creative work and concentrate more effectively on healing.

2) Artificial intelligence

Watson, IBM's new supercomputer, possesses the ability to comb through patient records, English textbooks, and millions of medical papers in existing databases - in seconds instead of decades. Its algorithms arrive at diagnostic suggestions, and assign probable success rates to them. In the end, the treating physician makes the decision, assisted by all pertinent information gleaned by Watson. Mesko mentioned that the company launched its special program for oncologists - and he interviewed one of the professors working with it- which is able to provide clinicians evidence-based treatment options. Watson for Oncology has an advanced ability to analyze the meaning and context of structured and unstructured data in clinical notes and reports that may be critical to selecting a treatment pathway. Then by combining attributes from the patient's file with clinical expertise, external research and data, the program identifies potential treatment plans for a patient. Also, IBM launched another algorithm called Medical Sieve. It is an ambitious long-term exploratory project to build a next generation "cognitive assistant" with analytical, reasoning capabilities and a wide range of clinical knowledge.

Although not only IBM is engaged in developing AI technology and the race is getting fiercer by the day on the market. Google's DeepMind recently beat the world champion in the Chinese chess game called Go. Imagine using the intuition and computing power DeepMind combined for analyzing health data and medical records. It would not only be a program doing what it was coded to do, but go beyond that, making assumptions only people have been able to. These competing companies are able to open up opportunities we have never seen before in medicine and healthcare.

As a patient with a 13 year misdiagnosis, Farmanfarmaian thinks that the diagnostic aspects of AI are an enormous benefit for patients. With over 10,000 known human diseases, combined with the complexity of the human body, how is a physician supposed to keep up the sheer amount of research and data coming at them in their own silo of medicine, let alone medicine as a whole, she asked. They can't, obviously, said Farmanfarmaian, but AI can, and this will dramatically change some patient's outcomes. She said that for her, had AI diagnostic support existed when she was a teenager, she probably would not have had her colon surgically removed.

3) Health sensors and trackers

For hundreds of years, certain technologies have only been accessible at the doctor's office. When traditional technologies like ECG devices and portable ultrasound become available for the general public - also at home, it will revolutionize healthcare. Today, we are almost there! Sensors and health trackers can measure health parameters, granting insight into exercise habits, sleep quality, stress levels or brain activity during meditation. As the size of health sensors and trackers shrinks further with advances like digital tattoos and nanorobots in bloodstreams, people will understand their bodies and health in fine grained detail like never before.

Farmanfarmaian thinks vital sign and other readings taken at the clinic or hospital are sometimes different that they would normally be in day-to-day life. Patients can be nervous, out of their element, or like in her case, have just run up the stairs or in from the car to the appointment. Having at-home sensors can get normal every-day measurements, which is much more accurate and valuable. Sensors for at-home monitoring will also help keep patients out of the hospital. Some hospitalizations are just to monitor the patient, in case they need medical attention.

Mesko emphasized that the market for healthcare wearables and trackers is booming lately. He also enthusiastically tested many of them in order to ensure a healthy way of life, and he believes that in the future, health trackers such as the Pebble sleep tracker or Withings Blood Pressure monitor will become part of our lives. Such sensitive data-collecting devices will be very useful for doctors, especially GPs in the future since they collect a lot of health information about the patient. They could take care of their health better, the waiting time in front of doctor's examining rooms could drop significantly and the GPs could devote more energy and time to more focused and relaxed healing.

4) Social media

The use of social media in medical communication and healthcare purposes has become the new norm. Physicians and patients write blogs, leave comments on medical papers and organize discussions on Twitter. There is already so much social communication that it is difficult to follow and filter information. This is the reason why Symplur started to track thousands of relevant healthcare hashtags to give real-time access to patients, doctors and other stakeholders to more than a billion healthcare social media data points.

Farmanfarmaian pointed out that peer-to-peer social networks for patients provide huge value. While close friends and family can sympathize with you, if you are ill, unless they have felt the same pain, it is difficult to truly understand what you're going through. Disease-specific social media sites provide a group that you can talk to, who know what you're going through, and can provide tips, tricks and emotional support. And sometimes also new insights can be discovered. For example, on Crohnology, a social media site specifically for patients with IBD (Inflammatory bowel disease), it was discovered through self reported data that the majority of patients with IBD cannot tolerate beer, though you will not find that information in traditional medical literature.

Mesko agreed with the insights and stressed that knowledge-sharing communities and online databases can ease the life of a medical professional significantly as well. In the digital age, there is so much information about healthcare and medicine out there, that it is a real challenge to find the most relevant and to separate facts from falsehood. Online communities are perfect for this task. That was the basic idea behind launching his company, Webicina, where you can find medical news, advice and tips you can actually trust - from 11050 hand-picked, constantly monitored sources in 134 conditions.

5) Virtual reality

Virtual reality has finally started going mainstream. When a Google Cardboard was given out in a New York Times edition, millions of people could experience it. And it is only the beginning. Although medical VR is also a brand new field, there are already great examples of it having a positive effect on patients' lives and physicians' work.

Farmanfarmaian also mentioned that VR has already many uses for patients - from pain relief, to being able to experience life within the limitations of a treatment or disease. For instance, if you're constrained to a hospital bed, or have to stay close to home, you can more realistically see and experience the world. VR can also serve as a major distraction from pain or anxiety because it takes your entire attention. It can provide education, by showing a patient what is happening inside their body. Using specific VR programs can even help retrain someone's brain after a stroke.

Mesko firmly believes that VR is a game-changer for physicians. For the first time in the history of medicine, on 14 April 2016 Shafi Ahmed cancer surgeon performed an operation using a virtual reality camera at the Royal London hospital. Anyone could participate in the operation in real time through the Medical Realities website and the VR in OR app. According to him, this example shows how VR could elevate the teaching and learning experience in medicine to a whole new level.

Another great utilization of VR could point towards making medical professionals more compassionate. Embodied Labs created "We Are Alfred" by using VR technology to show young medical students what ageing means. Everyone can be the hypothetical Alfred for 7 minutes, and experience how it feels like to live as a 74 year-old man with audio-visual impairments. Fostering empathy between caretakers and their charges is much easier when physicians can see things from the patients' perspectives.

Someone once told me that my health is my greatest wealth. I think they are right. And after this conversation, I'd say there abundance is closer than we think.
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Brian Rashid is a professional speaker and writer on how to make money doing what you love. Visit him at brianrashid.com or say "Hi" at connect@brianrashid.com

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