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Impact of emerging technologies on healthcare

The influence of emerging technologies on the healthcare industry has increased drastically in the recent years. It has empowered patients, helping them take control of the situation better. They can search for information about their illness, the prescribed medicines, book appointments at a click of button and interact almost from anywhere and anytime.

There’s no doubt that emerging technologies, like artificial intelligence (AI) and virtual reality (VR), have played their part in that too. They have magnified our capabilities to diagnose and treat diseases.

Here’s a look at some of the ways in which the emerging technologies are radically changing the healthcare industry.

Digital Epidemiology 

Definition

Big Data are large datasets that can be analysed to reveal patterns, trends relating to human behaviour and interactions. When we interact on the Internet, do a Google search or send a Tweet, we leave a digital footprint. And, when such data is collected and analysed, it can reveal patterns. Such patterns can be used to identify the health of a particular set of population.

It is a new field that lays focus on tracking infectious disease outbreaks and epidemics by leveraging the widespread use of the Internet and mobile phones.

Monitoring HIV transmission

For example, in this study, a bunch of researchers from University of California and Virginia Tech, tried to understand how sexual risk behaviors are communicated on real-time social networking sites.

Understanding food habits

A McGill University professor did an interesting study. David Buckeridge developed a way for health agencies to track Montreal consumers’ food choices, neighborhoo-by-neighborhood. It could pave the way to better monitoring of consumers’ behavior and more targeted efforts to encourage healthier diets.

“We’ve taken data which most grocery and convenience stores generate with digital scanners to identify items at checkout. Companies use these data and produce information for marketing and other purposes,” he said.

Montreal_Eating_habits
This is McGill professor David Buckeridge’s map of the island of Montreal and his study tacking neighborhood eating habits using digital data.

Buckeridge and his team measured monthly neighborhood-level purchases of soft drinks using digital data captured by store scanners in Montreal, Canada, between 2008 and 2010, then compared those results with census data describing detailed neighborhood socioeconomic characteristics.

“For each $10,000 decrease in median personal income, we observed a five-fold increase in estimated monthly sales of soft drinks,” he said. “This indicates that in neighborhoods where families have lower incomes people tend to buy many more soft drinks as compared to neighborhoods where families have higher incomes.” Though the link between food consumption and socioeconomics may seem obvious, Buckeridge’s metrics provided accurate measurements over time, essential building blocks towards improving global health.

Understanding sleep patterns

Another interesting study. This, published  in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, looked at the relationship between social media use and sleep issues. It was based on the sentiments expressed in users’ tweets.

The research team used publicly available anonymized data from Twitter to create a virtual cohort of 896 active Twitter users whose tweets contained sleep-related words (e.g., “can’t sleep,” “insomnia”), or hashtags (e.g., #cantsleep, #teamnosleep), or the names of common sleep aids or medications. They then compared data from that cohort to those of a second group of 934 users who did not tweet using sleep-related terms.

The increased negative sentiment in their tweets suggested that sleep-disordered users could be at an increased risk for psychosocial issues

Helping older adults, seniors

Loneliness
Photo: enki22/Flickr

The internet is revolutionizing the way seniors and older adults are coping with age-related psychological issues. There are studies to prove that usage of social technology can reduce sense of loneliness in seniors.

Treating depression

A study, published in Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking, by a Michigan State University researcher found that social technology use among older adults was linked to better self-rated health and fewer chronic illnesses and depressive symptoms.

Healthcare support

Internet can also help older adults connect to their healthcare providers. Older adults suffering from chronic illness and who need constant medical attention can avail such services at a click of a button. Video calling offers great potential for older adults who cannot afford to move around easily.

Also, with the help of Internet, older adults and doctors can exchange medicine and diet routines almost instantaneously.

Discussing issues and getting information

Forget those ageist stereotypes that senior citizens have little interest in sex and are befuddled by technology. Many older adults are going online to dish about the joys of sex and swap advice about keeping their mojos working well into their twilight years.

Berdychevsky and co-author Galit Nimrod, a faculty member at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Israel, conducted an online ethnographic study – or netnography – in which they examined discussions of sexual topics in 14 online communities geared toward adults age 50 and older.

Berdychevsky said online communities offer notable potential for helping people cope with the three primary sexual vulnerabilities that occur in later life: health issues and life circumstances that affect sexuality, difficulties communicating with health care providers about sex-related problems, and limited access to sexual health information.

Computer-aided diagnoses

Artificial Intelligence and detecting cancer

A research team from Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC) and Harvard Medical School (HMS) developed an artificial intelligence (AI) method,  aimed at training computers to interpret pathology images.

The team trained the computer to distinguish between cancerous tumor regions and normal regions based on a deep multi-layer convolutional network. In an objective evaluation in which researchers were given slides of lymph node cells and asked to determine whether or not they contained cancer, the team’s automated diagnostic method proved accurate approximately 92 per cent of the time.

Detection of cardiovascular issues

Researchers at the University of Waterloo developed a revolutionary system for monitoring vital signs that could lead to improved detection and prevention of some cardiovascular issues, as well as greater independence for older adults.

Using patent-pending technology called Coded Hemodynamic Imaging, the device is the first portable system that monitors a patient’s blood flow at multiple arterial points simultaneously and without direct contact with the skin. It is ideal for assessing patients with painful burns, highly contagious diseases, or infants in neonatal intensive care whose tiny fingers make traditional monitoring difficult.

Coded Hemodynamic Imaging system
The Coded Hemodynamic Imaging system monitors blood-flow patterns through the neck and face (slowed down to 1/6 normal speed). Photo: UWaterloo

“Traditional systems in wide use now take one blood-pulse reading at one spot on the body. This device acts like many virtual sensors that measure blood-flow behaviour on various parts of the body. The device relays measurements from all of these pulse points to a computer for continuous monitoring,” said Robert Amelard, a PhD candidate in systems design engineering at Waterloo.

“By way of comparison, think of measuring the traffic flow across an entire city rather than through one intersection.”

Early detection of autism

Autism is a spectrum of closely related disorders diagnosed in patients who exhibit a shared core of symptoms, including delays in learning to communicate and interact socially.

Early detection of autism in children is the key for treatments to be most effective and produce the best outcomes. Using advanced three-dimensional imaging and statistical analysis techniques, researchers at the University of Missouri have identified facial measurements in children with autism that may lead to a screening tool for young children and provide clues to its genetic causes.

Autism
Using advanced three-dimensional imaging and statistical analysis techniques, researchers at the University of Missouri have identified facial measurements in children with autism that may lead to screening tools for young children and provide clues to genetic causes. Photo: Nathan Hurst, MU News Bureau

The group’s analyses revealed three distinct subgroups of children with autism who had similar measurement patterns in their facial features. These subgroups also shared similarities in the type and severity of their autism symptoms.

Virtual reality and therapy

Facing fear

Virtual reality is a type of human-computer interaction in which humans interact in a manner that they would normally do in real life. The immersive experience provided by the computer goes much beyond our usual mouse-keyboard interaction.

Here’s how it is done. Let’s say you have Arachnophobia, or fear of arachnids such as spiders and scorpions. So the therapist will put you in an environment that forces you to confront one, a virtual one. Depending on your degree of fear, the therapist might look at setting the environment in manner that you feel comfortable confronting it.

Virtual reality has proved to be an excellent tool to provide therapies. It can be customized to fit the concerns of any sufferer, used to ease someone slowly out of their comfort zone and, in the process, increase their comfort zone from where they can confront fear and anxiety in a much-better fashion. More…

Helping paraplegics regain control

Researchers have proved that long-term training with a brain-machine system can induce partial recovery in paraplegic patients. The results were astonishing. After training, the patients regained voluntary motor control in key muscles.

Virtual reality therapy
Photo: Duke University

It involves a virtual reality system that uses the patients’ brain activity to simulate full control of legs. Initially, the patients wore fitted caps lined with 11 non-invasive electrodes to record their brain activity through EEG. They were then asked to imagine walking in the virtual environment. And, at first, they didn’t observe the expected signals in the areas associated with motor control of their legs.

Over the course of the training, the participants were given more intensive training that required them to use lot more muscles and to control their postures and balance.

Most patients also saw improvements in their bladder control and bowel function, reducing their reliance on laxatives and catheters. These changes reduce patients’ risk of infections, which are common in patients with chronic paralysis and are a leading cause of death.

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