Robot Doctors

How technology is transforming healthcare

The healthcare industry has benefited massively from technological innovation, from 3D printing to Artificial Intelligence. New tech has been used to train aspiring doctors and surgeons, plan complicated operations and even to carry out surgery. Despite the adoption of innovation within the sector, there’s a lot of pressure on healthcare to respond to the demands of a growing (and increasingly aged) population. As healthcare improves, so does the volume of people that need medical attention. Currently, only a third of the population can access safe and affordable surgery. According to the Lancet commission on global surgery, the surgical workforce will have to double by 2030 to meet the basic needs of the developing world. This necessary increase in productivity will be a daunting challenge for the industry, but disruptive technology is playing a large part in achieving this expansion. So how exactly can technology help to improve productivity in healthcare?

As capable as innovative technology is, it hasn’t replaced human medical professionals. Improved productivity in health relies in part on finding and training personnel. For prospective surgeons in the developing world and remote locations, teaching resources can be hard to come by. However, by using Virtual Reality, students can be transported to real-life surgical procedures. Dr. Shafi Ahmed is a surgeon and the co-founder of a VR startup called Medical Realities. In 2014, Dr. Ahmed streamed a Virtual Reality training session via Google Glass, and this year he live-streamed the removal of a cancerous tumour. Of course, there’s still the initial problem of getting headsets to these remote areas, which will become less of an issue as Head Mounted Displays (HMDs) become more affordable. For now, VR videos will probably be viewed using a smartphone and a cardboard headset. As well as VR, the healthcare sector has embraced advanced robotics. Fifteen years ago, Intuitive Surgical’s da Vinci surgical robot began helping surgeons perform fluid, precise surgical operations. The da Vinci robot is essentially an extremely dexterous machine, but we’re now in a ‘second wave’ of surgical robotics that merges this technology with Artificial Intelligence as part of wider digitalisation. AI itself provides medical assistants with a wealth of information to hand. Machine learning algorithms identify diseases from symptoms, and 3D printing is already creating artificial organs with the potential to address the current difficulty in finding donors.

Will new technology positively disrupt productivity?
At the moment medical processes remain largely the same for most practitioners and patients, but the continual adoption of tech will undoubtedly cause fundamental changes to the whole infrastructure. This will affect all aspects of healthcare, from general admin to surgical procedures. The list of medical applications for new tech goes on and on, but will they actually change things? Dr. Ahmed’s 2014 VR experience reached 14,000 surgeons across the world, which isn’t a large amount when you consider that there are almost 195,000 licensed doctors in the U.K. alone. However, when it comes to technology, a lot can change in a short time-span. The influx of technology into the healthcare industry will grow exponentially, especially as so much innovation has already been adopted by medical organisations and professionals. Gather all this ever-increasing, ever-improving tech together, and productivity will rocket. This is great news for the two thirds of the population who don’t currently have access to basic surgery, but it might not be as beneficial for the industry’s employees. Ironically, some commentators have suggested that humans will no longer be capable of dealing with the vast amounts of patient data created by new tech like the Internet of Things and AI. According to technologist and inventor Vinod Khosla, no human doctor can offer the mass data-fuelled diagnosis that a machine can. . . And he’s right. This has led to the suggestion that people will eventually trust AI diagnosis over a doctor’s opinion. As well as this, when you consider the ability of advanced robots to perform precise surgery, it may even get to the point where patients prefer to be operated on by machines that don’t make human errors.

From a business perspective. . .
Improved healthcare equals a bigger population, which has knock-on effects not just for economics and politics but also for the industries supplying those people with the things they need – for example, food. If healthcare begins to find cures and better treatment for more and more people, there will be far more pressure on businesses in agriculture and energy, for instance. However, for startups with an eye on healthcare, the adoption of technology in the industry could offer rewarding opportunities. Medical organisations will be looking to invest in innovative solutions to provide a better service, keep ahead of competitors and stay relevant. The digitalisation of the industry as a whole will force traditional health companies to adapt if they want to protect their coffers from disruptive technology companies like Google, for example, which is investing in genome storage. Paradoxically, the expansion of medical technology might make it easier for prospective surgeons, doctors and nurses to train, but the growing ability of machines to undertake medical tasks could actually discourage people from entering the profession. This could negatively impact organisations like the Royal College of Surgeons, for instance.

There’s still a long way to go before the healthcare industry can respond to all of the productivity challenges that come with caring for a global population. However, by using disruptive technology like AI, Advanced Robotics, VR and 3D printing (not to mention developments in Genomics), the sector will be able to give better answers to medical questions from determining disease to providing in-demand training materials. This will improve productivity, but it will also change the entire set-up of the medical profession. Doctors, surgeons and other employees in the industry are currently finding new ways for innovation to improve healthcare, but what will happen when technology progresses to the point that it can perform tasks and answer questions better than a human agent? Will aspiring medical professionals have to take yet another exam in robotics? Ultimately, productivity in healthcare will be improved by technology, but this will come with disruption to the whole sector that might not necessarily be positive for those that work within it.

Will machines replace medical professionals? Should hospitals and surgeries look to invest in innovative technology? Which technologies will be the most disruptive to healthcare? Share your thoughts and opinions.