Technology within the health care industry seems to be advancing at an exponential rate. Doctors now enlist the help of robots for surgeries, patients can get instant pulse and body temperature readings by using their smartphones, and brain implants let those who are paralyzed manipulate robotic arms. At times it seems as if there are no limits to what human beings can accomplish. So as we settle into the new year, we can’t help but envision what 2014 has in store for doctors. Here are a few innovations we are likely to see in the medical field in the very near future.
Printing three-dimensional objects once seemed like a concept straight out of The Jetsons, but today, 3-D printing is very much a reality. Although the first working 3-D printer was created in 1984, it wasn’t until 2010 that the technology first became widely available commercially. Experts even predict that 3-D printers will soon be common in homes in the coming years. This year in particular may be important for the machines as the first 3-D-printed organ is expected in 2014, through a process that is known as bio-printing. San Diego–based bio-printing company Organovo plans to unveil a 3-D-printed liver to be used for research purposes and, if successful, it may set the stage for 3-D-printed implantable organs in the near future. Bio-printing machines combine multiple types of live cells with different functions to form human tissue and ultimately a living human organ. The first 3-D-printed organs will be used for medical studies and drug research to test the effects of drugs on the human body. Organovo has not released any information on possible implantable organs, but doing so would involve rigorous government review before being approved for clinical purposes. 3-D printers can also be useful for skin grafting, making prosthetics, and dental work.
Doctor Visits Replaced by Technology
As technology continues to advance and be embraced by professionals, doctors may begin to see more in-person patient visits replaced by virtual house calls in 2014. With smartphones and computers, doctors can be more connected to their patients than ever before. Prescription reminders can be sent to patients via text, doctors can remotely monitor anything from blood sugar to sleep, and checkups can be performed in the comfort of a patient’s home through video calling. A recent study by researchers at Johns Hopkins and the University of Rochester Medical Center showed that virtual house calls can save money and hours of travel time for patients with Parkinson’s disease. The study also concluded that patients who were given medical care via webcam received just as much care as those who had in-person visits. Virtual house calls are ideal for patients who only require a basic assessment and consultation, and they are sure to gain popularity this year as more doctors and patients continue to integrate technology into their everyday lives.
Electronic Medical Records
Electronic medical records (EMRs) will also be used by more doctors this year. As of January 1, 2014, a mandate called the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act requires all public and private health care providers to integrate and demonstrate “meaningful use” of EMRs in order to maintain their existing Medicaid and Medicare reimbursement levels. Instead of carrying around stacks of patient medical records, EMRs enable doctors to access digital records all in one place. An EMR is considered more beneficial than paper records because it can track data over time, identify patients who are due for a visit, and monitor medical activity. Not all doctors, however, prefer using EMRs over the traditional paper files. Some docs say that searching for digital documents can be time-consuming and that user interfaces hamper, rather than improve, their clinical flow. Others say that using an EMR interferes with face-to-face patient care, and find it difficult to divide their attention between their patients and their computer.
Genetic testing is sure to gain traction in 2014 as companies fine-tune their products to meet the Food and Drug Administration’s standards. Last year, the FDA ordered 23andMe, one of the leading genetic testing companies in the market, to halt providing medical interpretation of test results until it receives clearance, on the grounds that it is being used to diagnose diseases without government approval. While genetic testing companies scramble to meet governmental requirements, the FDA just approved a genetic test from Affymetrix that screens infants for predictors of mental handicaps. The test, known as the CytoScan Dx Assay, detects variations in a patient’s chromosomes that are linked to Down syndrome, DiGeorge syndrome, and other mental disabilities. The test is designed to help doctors diagnose children’s disabilities earlier so they can get the proper care sooner. The FDA said it approved the test based on studies that proved it can accurately detect genetic variations linked to mental disabilities. This is just one approval out of many that are inevitably to come. As technology progresses, genetic testing will become a commonplace procedure in the doctor’s office.
While not a technological advancement, medical marijuana is gaining broader acceptance among doctors worldwide. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced on January 10, 2014 that the state “will establish a program allowing up to 20 hospitals to prescribe medical marijuana.” Along with Washington DC, New York will be the 21st state to legalize the use of marijuana for medical purposes and 2014 is sure to see a broader acceptance of the drug among doctors. Those who are in favor of medical marijuana say that it is an effective treatment for the symptoms of cancer, AIDS, multiple sclerosis, glaucoma, epilepsy, and other conditions, without the debilitating side effects of other drugs on the market. Marijuana has been proven to relieve pain, improve mood, and increase appetite for patients who are prescribed it. According to a survey by the New England Journal of Medicine last May, out of 1446 doctors around the world, 76% were in favor of the use of medical marijuana. Many of the doctors noted the responsibility of caregivers to help minimize their patients’ suffering and respect their patients’ own personal choice. On the other hand, the doctors who opposed medical marijuana mentioned a lack of evidence, uncertainty over where the drug was coming from, and problems with dosing and side effects.
- Castillo M. Survey: 76 percent of doctors approve of medical marijuana use. CBS News website. May 31, 2013. http://www.cbsnews.com/news/survey-76-percent-of-doctors-approve-of-medical-marijuana-use/.
- Drummond D. 9 reasons why doctors hate their EMR. Huffington Post website. November 25, 2013. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dike-drummond/electronic-medical-records_b_4319674.html.
- January 1, 2014 federal mandates for healthcare: digital record-keeping will be required of public and private healthcare providers. USF Health website. February 8, 2013. http://www.usfhealthonline.com/news/healthcare/electronic-medical-records-mandate-january-2014/#.Utgy57SQOO5.
- Mearian L. The first 3D printed organ—a liver—is expected in 2014. Computer World website. December 26, 2013. http://www.computerworld.com/s/article/9244884/The_first_3D_printed_organ_a_liver_is_ expected_in_2014.
- Mukherjee S. The five most promising uses of 3D printing in medicine. Think Progress website. May 23, 2013. http://thinkprogress.org/health/2013/05/23/2054281/promising-uses-3d-printing-medicine/.
- Nerenberg J. Getting care anywhere via virtual house calls. Healthline website. March 17, 2013. http://www.healthline.com/health-news/policy-getting-care-anywhere-via-virtual-house-calls-031713.
- Perrone M. FDA approves novel genetic test that screens infants for predictors of mental handicaps. Star Tribune website. January 17, 2014. http://www.startribune.com/lifestyle/health/240833971.html.
- What is an electronic medical record (EMR)? HealthIT website. http://www.healthit.gov/providers-professionals/electronic-medical-records-emr.