New healthcare technologies are playing an ever-growing role in revolutionizing our world. From switching to electronic medical records, to developments in biomedical engineering and technology, modern healthcare and its delivery methods are evolving exponentially. Here, I discuss some remarkable examples of how technologies are impacting global health.
Smartphones have already enhanced the interaction between doctors and patients. An example is uMotif, a health tracking app that enables patients and their healthcare providers to monitor symptoms and wellbeing. The mobile devices can also use measurements from individuals and collect this data for large-scale research if users opt-in to have their anonymous health diary made available to a global health study.
Smartphones are transforming clinical practice in low, middle and high-income countries. The decline in the price of a smartphone, coupled with the United Nations’ efforts to provide universal and affordable access to the internet in least-developed countries by 2020, means that soon smartphones will be ubiquitous across developing nations.
Maternal and infant mortality are some of the leading causes of death in the African continent. One app trying to curb this problem is GiftedMom. Subscribed pregnant women get free text alerts to provide education on prenatal care, vaccinations, and reproductive health. Reminders are also sent for pregnancy milestones and health services newborns should be receiving.
Imminently, smartphones could also become fundamental for overcoming emerging diseases in the developing world. For example, the use of such technology would prove useful in a scenario such as the West African Ebola outbreak of 2013. The ability to track smartphones to collect information about mobility patterns could help governments to isolate high-risk areas, permitting appropriate channeling of resources and prevention of an epidemic.
Resembling Star Trek tricorders, portable diagnostic devices do not just measure health parameters, but can further help diagnose using either smart algorithms or fast, digital contact with medical professionals. As such, researchers at the University of Illinois have pioneered technology that lets a smartphone perform lab-grade medical diagnostic tests, that would otherwise need large, expensive instruments. The handheld spectral analyzer connects to a smartphone device and can analyse a patient’s blood, urine and saliva samples as reliably as its clinical laboratory-based counterparts. Its capabilities to analyse multiple samples rapidly and reliably makes it invaluable for patients lacking access to local health facilities or for those with urgent health situations requiring rapid results.
Smart drug delivery
Advances in drug delivery mechanisms are providing patients and healthcare professionals tools to monitor and increase adherence to prescription drug treatments.
Proteus Discover is the world’s first digital medicine service. It uses ingestible sensors, a small wearable sensor patch, a smartphone app and a provider portal. It provides insight to patients and doctors regarding medicine-taking patterns and can help to optimize therapies. However, this does raise concerns for how patient privacy and autonomy will be inflicted upon.
In 2012, the world of automated drug delivery was changed forever with the release of novel findings in the Science Translational Medicine journal on the first ever successful human trial of wireless drug delivery. The scientists managed to deliver multiple doses of human parathyroid hormone from the microchip-based device, in vivo. This system utilises an external device, which communicates with the implanted device through radio frequency. The external device can provide instructions to release a dose instantaneously, or schedule for a future time, or release a particular number of doses at specific time points in the future. Further advances in electronic miniaturization will enable higher drug to device volume ratios and will make this a truly minimally invasive drug delivery service.
Innovations in genome sequencing and genomics are helping us to understand how diseases affect different individuals. Combining personal genetic profiling with information about responses to treatment can expand knowledge of the efficacy of certain drugs in treatment for particular diseases.
The economics of genome sequencing has undergone a significant change and the costs have fallen, in part thanks to a novel fourth generation approach utilizing nanopores. Nanopore sequencing devices are much more portable than traditional sequencing methods in the laboratory. This method not only costs less, but can be done faster, in real time.
The technologies featured here are by no means an exhaustive set. So far, there is abundant evidence to indicate that, when considering quality of life and productivity, investments in health technology provide great returns.
However, it is crucial that we do not just embrace technology for its own sake, at the expense of traditional medical practices or the safety of vulnerable populations. We must not lose sight of the humans behind this technology and their individual needs.
Zainab graduated from University College London with a degree in Biomedical Sciences. She has a keen interest in Global Health, particularly in providing women and girls with equal access to healthcare.
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