Robo-doc: science fiction becomes science fact in healthcare

Dr Leonard McCoy (left, with fellow Star Trekker Mr Spock) used a 'tricorder' to get instant diagnoses. Digital technology has now caught up with science fiction. Image: Paramount/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

Advances in healthcare technology are catching up with science fiction, claims Liam Hughes.

Do you recall the “medical tricorder” that Dr McCoy solemnly waved over his patients in the Star Trek TV series and films, which allows him to give instant diagnoses? Back when the programme started being filmed, in the 1960s, it must have seemed centuries ahead of then current medical instruments. Yet, it’s now a real technology, albeit currently on a small scale.

A scientist at Loughborough University of Technology has invented a handheld infrared light device that can spot heart disease symptoms in seconds. A team at Massachusetts General Hospital in the US has developed a small device which, linked to a smartphone, can rapidly diagnose pathogens in a matter of hours, instead of days. In fact, NASA has been using a similar device called LOCAD-PTS aboard the International Space Station for nearly 10 years.

Advances like these exist not only in the science laboratory, they’re also within reach for consumers.

When faced with a minor pain or headache, how often do you reach for your smartphone or computer to find information rather than call the doctor? Gone are the days when doctors were the first point of call on all things medical. About 1% of all searches on Google – think millions – are medical symptom-related.

This shift in the way medical information is received and consumed online has brought about a fundamental change to healthcare communications. This is why there are so many symptom checkers available online, such as that promoted by WebMD.

Google itself has created a symptom checklist by turning to its search results to find health conditions and comparing them to medical information from doctors, from institutions such as Harvard Medical School and the Mayo Clinic.

Our phones and other smart devices can help us lead healthier lives. We are taking on a more proactive approach in managing our own health, and the rapid convergence between healthcare and technology is making this possible, particularly when it comes to mobile and wearables. Beyond smartphone and fitness bands, we are seeing the advent of smart clothes, contact lenses and many more innovations.

Robot doctor

In fact, Cigna’s 2017 Global Well-Being survey shows 67% of respondents would be happy to use a robot doctor if the cost was much lower than a human doctor, 78% of people felt digital technology would bring good health to more people, and nearly 60% were already using or planning to use a healthcare app this year.

However, Britons are lagging behind the rest of the world when it comes to using such digital health technology. Just 31% said they would use or planned to use a health app in the next year compared with almost double the number internationally at 59%. Only 10% of individuals have had a remote check with a doctor.

The research also suggests many in the UK feel very uncomfortable with seeking medical help, or exploring new ways of monitoring their health. Only 35% were willing to share health data with a third party, compared with an average of 45% across all the countries in the research.

Data protection will always be a concern, but we must adopt new ways of managing health if we are to provide world-leading healthcare for our growing and ageing population.

There is now a groundswell of innovative technologies that we should be looking to adopt to help take the strain particularly off our healthcare systems, and help to bring down costs for employers.

Digital technology can vastly improve outcomes, enabling closer monitoring and faster diagnoses, and can help employers and employees better manage and diagnose long term and chronic health conditions.

What’s next?

Mobile healthcare and use of mobile to enable patients to interact directly with hospitals, doctors and other providers will be among the biggest developments impacting the healthcare system in 2017. The use of apps and wearables will play an important role in helping employees proactively manage their health and wellness, making the prevention and treatment of chronic conditions much easier.

Virtual and augmented reality are now a reality. If Star Trek’s technology took only between 30 to 50 years to come true, then think of the films you have seen in the past few years. Who knows what will be possible: we may soon be morphing into avatars to conduct remote diagnostics or shrinking to ant-size to carry out complex surgeries.

But one thing is certain – private and public healthcare need to work together with employers to ensure we are taking advantage of these state of the art solutions, and providing a healthcare system, and a workforce, that is fit for the 21st century.

Liam Hughes is European client management director at Cigna Global Health Benefits.

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