The U.S. healthcare system is like nothing we’ve seen before – nothing compares in terms of complexity, access, and cost. With that said, we’re already making progress toward a change in the way we run the system through legislation and federal policy changes.
With the nation taking years of legislation and policy transformation to address issues in the past, we know that relying on the legal system to reform the healthcare industry will be a sluggish and agonizing process. Clearly, we need more than top-down solutions like this – so why not look from the bottom up?
Why don’t we start with technology? For a catalyst of change, our healthcare system is overlooking the most dynamic and growing drivers of innovation in the United States – entrepreneurs. Initially, implementing more technology and digitization in this industry might be a bit too much, considering many patients find their doctors mostly staring at a screen during their visit, rowdily typing away to send your prescription to your pharmacist (who, most likely, is also staring at a screen). This takes a toll on the doctors too. According to a 2014 Premier survey, over 40% of hospital staff and executives do not care for or are against the current electronic health record (EHR) system employed in their facility.
So how can we turn technology in the healthcare environment from the “irritation” it is to a valuable asset? Here are two emerging trends in healthcare that are transforming the way we take care of our health.
Telemedicine and Remote Examinations
An examination (as we know it) involves face-to-face interaction with a medical professional who is often bogged down on minor complaints that can be simply addressed through a normal conversation. Such an interaction will be much more convenient for the patient (and the practitioner) in the comfort of their own home. A rising number of doctors are turning to telemedicine – the use of technology for the remote evaluation, diagnosis, and medical advisory of patients – to reduce the inconvenience and improve the efficiency of doctor appointments. Of course, more complex and interventional procedures cannot be conducted over FaceTime, Skype, or over the phone, but applying telemedicine for minor concerns and follow-up cases saves significant amounts of time and energy for both the doctor and the patient.
3-D Printing has come to use in many applications; from industry and manufacturing to arts and even shoes, the world is still exploring the many innovative possibilities that 3-D printing can offer. Many of us have already seen the myriad of applications it has in the healthcare industry, as scientists are leveraging the technology to make prosthetics and even synthetic skin. But 3-D printing carries applications that can even treat chronic diseases. For example, take heart disease, the leading cause of death for both men and women.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in every four deaths are caused by heart disease. So what really is heart disease, and how can 3-D printing help?
Heart disease occurs when plaque builds up in the arteries, causing the vessel to narrow and reducing the amount of blood flow through the region. Sometimes, the artery becomes so occluded that blood begins to clot, stopping blood from circulating. Obviously, this has major effects; if the occlusion is located in the coronary artery (the artery that carries oxygenated blood to the muscle of the heart), then the heart becomes starved of oxygen and leads to a heart attack. The most common treatment for heart disease is the insertion of a stent, a device that is inserted and expanded in the blockage to reopen and support the artery. Unfortunately, stents have their complications too; stents, like tires, are made in standard sizes, which are inserted solely based on the doctor’s judgment. When stents of the wrong dimensions are inserted into the patient, they ultimately fail, making cardiologists struggle to reopen the blocked stent.
Researchers are working to create individualized stents that fit to the exact shape and size requirements of the patient’s case. In addition, many of these stents are engineered from biodegradable materials, dissolving away after the blood vessel reopens and is able to maintain a dilated state by itself. The future of 3-D printing in stenting and angioplasty holds a plethora of possibilities. Imagine a procedure that starts with clinicians obtaining the dimensions of the patient’s blocked artery and quickly 3-D printing a stent that fits the exact parameters of the vessel. Then imagine how simple the entire process would be if there is no stent removal procedure, where these 3-D printed stents dissolve by themselves. The possibilities to create patient-specific devices like this are endless.
Undoubtedly, the healthcare environment shows a bright and promising future with the help of emerging technologies. With entrepreneurs spurring growth in industries such as energy, agriculture, and even finance, we can be assured that our generation will take on the healthcare industry with continuously evolving innovation.