Hospitals Above And Beyond

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Innovations such as telemedicine, virtual reality, Big Data, IoT and robotics are often talked about with confidence, but so far have rarely been experienced in day-to-day practice. However, hospitals will soon see a wave of change defined more by e-health solutions and less by treatment technology.

Health care must move from hospitals towards patient’s home – for increased safety, precision and comfort of treatment.

Today’s symbol of innovation in hospitals is the da Vinci Surgical System. Despite the cost of around $2 million (the “Si” version), 3100 systems were sold worldwide in 2014, while the year previously the figure was 1000 lower. With its ability to reduce the invasiveness of certain procedures and to improve patient safety, the system is slowly becoming standard equipment in the USA, with surgeons there now making good use of over 2100 da Vinci systems. It is estimated that the surgical robot market will grow to $6.4 billion by 2020, and these numbers are attracting new players. Google has recently partnered with Johnson & Johnson, a pharmaceutical and medical device manufacturer, with the objective of developing a system competitive to the da Vinci.

The most innovative medical and research centres now use remote surgery techniques, virtual visits or clinical decision support systems every day. However, the barriers to accessing these technologies by other hospitals still remain insurmountable. These include limited funds and the deficiency in the know-how and human resources required to use such systems. These are the two key factors behind the painfully slow technological evolution in healthcare. Nevertheless, various other drivers are providing a step-by-step change in the functioning of stationary healthcare centres.

One of the fastest developing areas that certainly has the potential of widespread application is telemedicine. There are three strong arguments for it: remote monitoring to reduce hospitalisation costs; increased patient safety and comfort; demographic changes and epidemiological trends (higher rates of seniors in the population and greater numbers of non-communicable chronic diseases). When the first telemedicine centres began to appear next to hospitals in Europe they looked more like data or call centres rather than medical facilities. “Healthcare is shifting from hospitals to mobile phones,” said Lucien Engelen, Director at the ReShape Innovation Center (Radbound University Medical Center, the Netherlands) during eHealth Week 2016. The information collected from the sensors is forwarded 24/7 to processing centres where artificial intelligence systems analyse them online and notify the personnel (nurses and/or doctors) of any alarming changes.

In 20 to 50 years, a hospital visit will only be required when a procedure or operation is necessary. Rehabilitation will be done for the most part at home with the assistance of robots. A good example of this is Riba, an amiable looking robot that can lift an adult with great precision and sensitivity. Designed by the RIKEN-TRI Collaborative Center for Human-Interactive Robot Research, the robot is an answer to a quickly-ageing population and shortages in care personnel. While lifting sick patients can often put the carers’ own health at risk, it is not a problem for Riba. Telemedicine solutions are further augmented with virtual visits that are made possible owing to new virtual reality (VR) technologies. Patients will not miss the bricks-and-mortar hospitals because they will be equally safe and comfortable at home. The data collected on individual patient accounts will be analysed day and night by artificial intelligence systems to ensure that health care is provided in a personalised and all-inclusive manner. According to the Global Industry Analysts 2015 report, the global market for virtual reality in healthcare is projected to reach $3.8 billion by 2020. This technology is becoming increasingly popular, especially in learning, psychiatry and rehabilitation.

Many changes will take place in a less striking way than the introduction of robots to hospital wards. Laboratories as we know them will disappear and they will be replaced by real-time diagnostics carried out by innovative sensors, without having to take blood samples for testing. This will unavoidably bring about transformations in a host of medical professions, and so the continuous development of professional qualifications will be required. Learning systems will assist doctors in taking decisions and in conducting procedures. Hospital corridors will become less populated as they will mostly be frequented by robots visiting patients. Virtual visits made with the aid of robots, such as the iRobot developed by InTouch Health, are now conducted in 1500 hospitals worldwide. 3D printers will become standard equipment, making it possible to manufacture the personalised implants used in surgical operations. However, there is still a long way to go before we are able to reproduce human organs applying similar principles.

There is one especially fascinating aspect to all these game-changing solutions – moving care towards the home for increased safety, precision and comfort of treatment.

Photo credit: NXT HEALTH (Patient Room 2020)

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