Technology Propels Health

Most major transformations in healthcare are the result of technological advances, leading to improved effectiveness and precision. We are now on the cusp of the next major evolution in health and medicine, and once again, technology is the key.

In the early days of healthcare, the most important task was to diagnose diseases. How do you look at someone and detect the problem? In the earliest days, medical man did just that — looked at the person. After looking closely at the patient and asking some questions, they made diagnoses and prescribed medicine and a care regimen. Magnifying glasses were later used to observe more details related to suspected diseases.

Pulse measurements became a powerful tool around 600 BCE in China and India and soon spread to other countries as well. The real breakthrough in diagnoses though was brought about by the instrument used monitor human heartbeats. The stethoscope, invented in 1816 in France to better hear heart sounds in women’s chests, is still the most common instrument used by doctors. In fact, the stethoscope has remained nearly unchanged for the last two centuries, while almost everything else in medicine has transformed radically multiple times.

A later, major revolution in diagnosis was X-rays, which let us see inside the human body. Many variants of X-rays are now commonly used for different types of diagnoses. We can even get a picture of the activities going on inside a body using 2D and 3D imaging. Today, the radiology department is a major center for diagnostic imaging and treatment in most hospitals all across the globe. In fact, X-rays help assure many patients that their doctors are making an accurate diagnosis.

Computing technology continues to bring transformations in healthcare in multiple dimensions. The early days of computing introduced information systems used primarily for enterprise computing in hospitals and doctors’ practices. At first, these systems were not used to enable care per se, but for the administration of healthcare tasks. Interestingly, electronic health record (EHR) systems were originally designed for administrative and billing purposes. Only recently have EHR systems evolved into real-time patient-centered digital records.

Still, healthcare systems have been slow in adopting information systems in clinical and diagnostic applications and data sharing to help patients, hospitals, and doctors. But the 21st century started with major technology disruptions in many areas, including health. Powerful sensing, huge bandwidth, humongous capacity to store and process data, and the amazing all-purpose smartphone have came together to transform our perspective on health. In the next decade, more advances will materialize than in all the time since the beginning of humans.

Such advances in big data and computational analysis have enabled a major revolution in health and medicine in omics fields, such as genomics, proteomics, and metabolomics. Omics (the study of a body of information, on a large scale) is playing a key role in helping us understand an individual’s propensity for different health states, such as diseases. Understanding an individual’s propensities allows us to form precise individual models based on genetic factors rather than trying to infer possibilities based on anecdotal family history.

The second most important contributor to this trend is the nexus of sensing, communication, and computing. This nexus is resulting in sensors that can perpetually measure internal and external relevant attributes. This is a factor in understanding propensities as well as determining individual models based on a specific person’s environment and lifestyle. Until a decade ago, there was only subjective anecdotal information about lifestyle and environments. Not anymore. Smartphones, wearable devices, nanosensors, and social media have made precise and objective lifestyle information available, unobtrusively and perpetually.

The third factor is a scaling up of the number and frequency of measurements that can be performed for a person and can be shared instantly with all relevant people and sources. The measurements to evaluate health and diagnose diseases have moved out of the doctor’s office and into your pocket and onto your body. Sensors in your smartphone and wearables can perpetually measure, communicate, and compute to determine your health condition at every moment independent of your location. Such sensors can even be placed inside your body.

The days of once-a-year visits to the doctor will be replaced by a mini critical care unit (CCU) in the every person’s pocket that is active nearly 24/7. This almost zero-cost CCU will continuously diagnose and guide a person, anywhere and anytime.

These changes are resulting in a total disruption in human health. You will be at the center of your health. You will make most decisions and consult doctors and hospitals as needed. Doctors may monitor your health state and help you with complex decisions without having to be physically at the same location.

An important contribution of this will also be developing a better understanding of diseases through the use of better disease models. It is well known that we can build better population models by understanding individuals better. In the same way, we can have more precise segmentation and understanding of diseases for specific populations.

We are at the beginning of the next healthcare revolution: Being able to develop platforms and methods to manage the deluge of personal, environmental, and social data, while learning to use this information in real time for both personal well-being and the benefit of mankind.


Originally published at ngs.ics.uci.edu.