The Digitalization of Medicine

Written by ALI M. RASOOL

When is the last time you said the word “electricity”? Chances are you can’t remember; since the usage of electricity is now commonplace, we have no reason to give it much thought. As cloud computing software takes over and hardware equates paper in cost and use, the same will occur with the word “computer.” Major industries today, like entertainment, are transformed by the revolution of technology. Next on the list is medicine. The following ideas were collected from Dr. Michio Kaku’s “World in 2030” presentation here at UT-Austin few weeks ago. A world renowned theoretical physicist, Dr. Michio Kaku unraveled his predictions of technology’s integration with medicine and how it will affect our future.

Ubiquitous Technology

Artificial intelligence and nanotechnology will serve as primary sources for technological change in medicine. The goal will be to make personal health analysis available for the general population. As a result, healthcare will deviate from its current symptom-based care approach to a more practical preventative-based care approach. Technology in our everyday environments will be able to help us decode our internal chemical conflicts before they manifest into symptoms.

Dr. Kaku mentions having intelligent toilets, which will contain DNA microchips capable of analyzing fragments of protein from cancer cells ten years before the cancer actually develops.

Simply breathing inside your bathroom will allow the microchips to tell you if you have lung cancer or not.

Nanoparticles will serve as a better alternative to chemotherapy, as they will be programmed to attack solely cancer cells before they become tumors. 

Furthermore, middle aged men will no longer fear colonoscopies, as they will be able to consume a pill, containing a chip and TV camera, and will be guided by a magnet.

MRI machines will be reduced to the size of the iPhone.

Individuals will be capable of scanning themselves with their phones, and email the results to their doctor.

Applications for smart phones have and will be further developed to measure vital signs, making keeping track of data less intimidating and more available.

Utilizing Tech for Emergency Medicine

If someone falls unconscious, chips within his/her clothing will record coordinates using GPS and alert the ambulance, and their electronic medical records will be sent to the doctor automatically. After a heart attack, future EMT crews will use the reversible death method by replacing the blood with an ice cold saline solution, dropping body temperature to below 50 degrees Fahrenheit and pausing brain and heart activity. Surgeons will manipulate a 3D model of the patient’s body and robotic arms will perform the actual incisions.

To Err is Human

The point of such advancement is to minimize the human error factor in healthcare today. An example of reducing human error is Google’s driverless car, a pioneering effort to eradicate “car accident” from our daily lexicon. Business man and venture capitalist Vinod Khosla believes that technology will replace 80% of what doctors do. He claims that “computers are better at organizing and recalling complex information than a hotshot Harvard MD… Most of the average doctor’s medical knowledge is from when they were in medical school, while cognitive limitations prevent them from remembering the 10,000+ diseases humans can get.” His main argument is that while the human interaction is important, you don’t necessarily need an MD to provide the mannerisms. He believes nurses and other healthcare workers can do this task also, if not better than a physician.

Personal Genomics

Three billion dollars were spent on DNA sequencing the first human being. In the future, Dr. Kaku predicts a 100 dollar price. He already had his genome sequence on a CD. “We will have our own owner’s manuals in the future.” As we figure out what, within our DNA code, is lacking or dysfunctional, we can add or replace to our body using the body shop with the help of tissue engineering. “At this point, 91,000 people, in America alone, are waiting for organ donations. 18 people die every day for an organ that never came. We need a human body shop. The first bladder was grown several years ago. Last year the trachea was grown. Few years down the road, the liver will be made. The next organ is the brain.” Consequently, the human lifespan will enhance. Dr. Kaku goes on to describe what aging means. He says that it is a build-up of genetic and cellular error, and that it can be reversed using gene therapy.   

As computers begin to supersede the cognitive abilities of human, it makes one rethink the role of physicians in the future. Technology should encourage patients to know more about their health, and thus improve the physician-patient relationship. By having software collect vital signs and symptoms, doctors will be able to visit with even more patients, therefore cutting costs. Dr. Kaku’s talk highlights the pros of a technologically driven future, but there are some potential flaws. On the bright side, we will be working with artificial intelligence to push beyond our capacity, which is always fascinating.  On the other hand, we are compromising the beauty in variation when and if we use technology to mask what makes us diverse. The bottom-line, however, is that this is a very complicated subject that will pose challenging questions for humanity as we gear towards the new role of technology in medicine.

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