As technology advances, so too do its applications in medicine. From 3D printing to the internet of things, new technology is helping to find ways to better patients’ health. Here are a few ways technology is making treatment more efficient, convenient, and better than it ever has been.
With 3D printing, the expenses are lowered without sacrificing quality. A patient could, in theory, buy their own 3D printer, spool in material, and print their own prosthetic.
While prosthetics have been around for centuries — think a pirate’s peg leg — technology has come a long way since simple wooden replacements. However, while complicated sensors and small motors can nearly replicate the movements of an actual human hand, they tend to be expensive. With 3D printing, the expenses are lowered without sacrificing quality. A patient could, in theory, buy their own 3D printer, spool in material, and print their own prosthetic. One company, e-Nable, aims to help with that, providing free, open-source designs for prosthetic hands. Typically, without health insurance, a functioning hand prosthesis with a hook at the end costs about $10,000. For a myoelectric arm, the patient could be looking at anywhere from $20,000 to $100,000. 3D printing could reduce this cost significantly.
Plus, 3D-printed prosthetics can also be custom made for the patient. This means that measurements can be exact, molded to the patient, rather than just trying to find the best fit out of available options. Quick edits can be made and a new prosthetic printed — or just a part that needs replacing.
While X-rays and 3D imaging can give an idea of what a surgeon will be dealing with, radiology can leverage 3D printing to print off an actual 3D model of an organ. If, for example, there is a mass on an organ, a life-size 3D model of the organ can be printed, complete with the mass. This helps the surgeon know what they are up against before ever cutting open the patent.
The surgeon can hold the 3D-printed simulated organ in their hands and make a plan. Beyond this, it can help the patient understand exactly what is wrong or what the surgeon plans to do. It’s much better than trying to explain using an image on a piece of paper. 3D printing technology lets the patient roll the printed organ in their hands, seeing exactly where the problem is. It’s more tactile than just using a 3D image.
Skin for Burn Victims
Scientists from Spain’s Universidad Carlos III de Madrid used 3D printing to produce synthetic human skin. In this bioprinting, they used biological components instead of the plastic of traditional 3D printers.
In the above press release from early 2017 from the university, the university outlined two different processes: one “to produce allogeneic skin, from a stock of cells, done on a large scale, for industrial processes; and to create autologous skin, which is made case by case from the patient’s own cells, for therapeutic use, such as in the treatment of severe burns.”
The process itself uses bioinks to try to replicate actual skin layers. Biological components are used in place of ink, and fighting against deterioration is the key to success. “Knowing how to mix the biological components, in what conditions to work with them so that the cells don’t deteriorate, and how to correctly deposit the product is critical to the system,” researcher Juan Francisco del Cañizo said. The printer uses injectors with biological components instead of ink. It creates an epidermis with a stratum corneum, the outer layer of skin. Then, it creates a dermis, a layer of fibroblasts that produce collagen, the protein that gives skin strength and elasticity. A computer oversees the entire process, and the bioinks are deposited “on a print bed in an orderly manner to then produce the skin.”
Researchers produced 100 square centimeters of human skin in half an hour. Not only does this offer hope for burn victims, essentially producing their own skin without the need for a graft from another part of their body, but it also has another application: pharmaceutical testing. Rather than testing on a live human, a new drug can be tested on synthetic skin. Or, as the researchers suggested, using a patient’s cells to create more skin, a drug can be tested to see if there is, for example, an allergic reaction.
Looking forward, if skin can be produced, it’s not a far leap to suggest that organs, using real tissue, could also be created. Currently, there are 3D-printed silicone hearts, but nothing of actual tissue. Instead of requiring a donor, which can create a lengthy waiting time, an organ could simply be printed, using the patient’s own cells as a base to ensure a smaller chance of rejection.
The Internet of Things
If you have a computer with a webcam or an IoT-enabled device like a tablet that has a camera, you are a copay away from remote doctor’s visits. Essentially, instead of appearing in person, a patient can visit with a doctor via a video call. If you are short on time or simply are unable to leave your home, it’s a great way to connect with a doctor. It’s also perfect if you are sick and can’t get out of bed, or are traveling, as you can even do a remote visit through your smartphone. A doctor can then make a diagnosis, write a prescription, and you just have to make a short trip to a pharmacy or even have the drugs delivered.
Rural residents will no longer have to make a trip to the city to see a doctor. Interestingly, the biggest demographic of telemedicine users is working mothers. Telemedicine makes it so they don’t have to take time off work to bring their children to the doctor directly.
An IoT-connected wearable, like a Fitbit or Apple Watch, allows a doctor to monitor from afar, known as telemonitoring. In the next five years, we can expect IoT remote monitoring to record and transmit vital signs to a doctor. There’s no need to go into an office for testing; data can be gathered while the patient is at home. Going a step further is the smart house. With a security system connected to the internet, long-distance caregivers can be alerted in real time to any incidents requiring their attention. Technology can provide peace of mind for these caregivers in situations where, for example, seniors have with a history of strokes, epilepsy, or chronic conditions. Caregivers can be immediately notified of an incident, giving them more time to respond. Or, in a hospital or rehabilitation setting, nurses are immediately notified of problems thanks to real-time location systems and smart alarm technology, receiving an alert without the patient having to signal themselves. Any dangerous changes in biometric readings are immediately forwarded to caregivers
With a combination of remote monitoring and telemedicine, a doctor could have all the information needed to diagnose a patient based on vitals transmitted from an IoT wearable and a description and images provided during a remote visit. From there, they can write a prescription or treatment plan.
What if a website or artificial intelligence could take in data of who has reported they have the flu and figure out the severity of an affected geographical area? Of what strains to put in a vaccine in order to combat further outbreaks? Data collection from the Center for Disease Control is already doing this. Since 2009, data from labs, officials, hospitals, and websites like Google Flu Trends have been crucial in mapping patterns in flu outbreaks. This could help predict where an outbreak might happen, allowing those in the area that might affect time to get vaccinated.
Unfortunately, Google Flu Trends ended its public-facing posting in 2014, as the team felt it was not accurate enough and that ultimately it was a failure due to the algorithm monitoring search terms not being sophisticated enough. They still make their historical data available to the CDC and other research groups, and it’s possible that they could pick up the program again in the future.
A clinical trial connected to myeloma, a painful blood cancer, is gathering data on patients’ quality of life. Data is collected from wearables and smartphones and then uploaded to the cloud. Instead of data on drug response, the researchers are interested in measuring sleep patterns and general mobility, both of which are impacted by the pain. This can help develop therapies in order to positively impact patients’ lives and to better understand myeloma.
Technology continues to shape how we think of healthcare and how patients are treated by doctors.
It enables medical professionals to collect more data, from vital signs to sleep patterns, providing insight that can be used to treat or diagnose patients. 3D printers are cutting the cost of prosthetics, easing the pain to patients’ wallets. Patches of skin printed out using bioink can better provide skin for burn victims, or determine if a patient is allergic to a certain medicine. As long as technology continues to advance, so too will healthcare.