Transporter aside, the medical tricorder is arguably one of the most impressive futuristic technologies portrayed in Star Trek. (What healthcare provider wouldn’t love to simply wave a gadget in front of a patient to diagnose an ailment instantaneously?)
Amazingly, such a device may make its way from science fiction to real-world practice sooner than you might think. The XPrize Foundation is offering a $10 million grand prize, a $2 million second prize, and a $1 million third prize to finalists from around the world attempting to create tricorder technology for use in the clinical setting. The portable gadget must weigh 5 pounds or less and be able to diagnose more than a dozen conditions, including whooping cough, hypertension, melanoma, HIV, and osteoporosis, as well as capture five health vital signs. The start of consumer testing of finalists’ entries is set to begin this month, with an awards ceremony slated for early 2017.
It’s an exciting time to be a nurse. Here are a handful of other medical technologies likely to impact the practice of healthcare — and patients’ lives — in coming years.
Healthcare teams are now using 3D printer technology to replicate patient parts to practice tricky or unique procedures before actually performing them, Hospitals & Health Networks magazine reports. Sean Chai, director of innovation and advanced technology services at Kaiser Permanente, told the publication that a clinical team at Kaiser Permanente’s Los Angeles Medical Center recently printed a replica of a patient’s aorta, which had a tear in the wall, to work through how to safely and effectively insert a stent. The procedure, by the way, was a success.
“The technology allows us to develop a more specialized, personalized, precise treatment plan,” Chai said. “Ultimately, that improves the quality and affordability of care.”
Devices that harvest skin cells from a patient’s own healthy skin and then spray them in a water solution onto burns or chronic wounds are making headlines for their quick and impressive results. “The healing is so rapid that you can walk into the hospital with a burn on a Friday night and return on Monday largely healed,” the website Digital Trends reports.
“The treatment is stupidly simple — just spray the stem cells on the burned skin and wait for them to regrow. It is also extremely fast, taking only 1.5 hours to isolate the cells and spray the skin.”
Robotic exoskeletons are making it possible for patients who have lost mobility due to stroke, spinal cord injury, and other disorders and injuries to regain their ability to walk. Earlier this year, an article in MIT Technology Review highlighted SuitX’s Phoenix exoskeleton, which weighs just 27 pounds, is custom-fit to the user’s body, and costs about $40,000. The device is powered by a battery pack, which the user wears as a backpack.
“We can’t really fix their disease. We can’t fix their injury,” SuitX founder and CEO Homayoon Kazerooni told the publication. “But what it would do is postpone the secondary injuries due to sitting. It gives a better quality of life.”
Similar mobility technology from Ottobock (the C-Brace high-tech leg brace) is enabling 41-year-old Stacey Kozel, who lost mobility due to lupus, to hike the 2,190-mile long Appalachian Trail. She gained access to the costly braces after a year’s worth of appeals to her insurer, who originally denied her request on the grounds they were “not necessary.”
“My goal is to bring awareness to these braces so people know they exist and hopefully it gives more people the ability to get out of their wheelchairs and out exploring the world,” she wrote. “There are people that qualify for these braces that either do not know they exist or it gets stopped with an insurance denial. I hope WHEN I make it back to Mt. Katahdin on my thru hike, insurance companies will have a much tougher time telling others that the braces are ‘not necessary.’”
As of mid-August, Kozel was posting pics from her Appalachian Trail journey on her Facebook page and was still going strong.
Other technologies currently in the development and testing stages include sensors that patients with heart failure can wear as necklaces, wristbands, and watches. The sensors supply direct information on a patient’s real-time condition and could eventually replace indirect, once-a-day measurements of weight, for example, that are currently used to signal problems with water retention and heart function.
Edible, nontoxic batteries are being designed to power medical devices that patients could swallow to diagnose and treat diseases.
And for caregivers in nursing homes, a smartwatch app has been created that sends specific alerts to certified nursing assistants (CNAs) whenever a patient they are assigned to requires assistance.
"We wanted to design a better system that improves notification and also, potentially, communication in nursing homes,” said developer Huiyang Li, assistant professor of systems science and industrial engineering at Binghamton University, Binghamton, NY. “The improvement of notification will potentially help staff to do a better job and, eventually, improve patient safety. Whenever residents need help, they have a way to call for help, and messages will be delivered to staff in an effective way."
What medical technologies are you most excited about? Share your thoughts here!