Who remembers the 8-track tape player? How about Olestra (the fat substitute)? These technologies were all the rage back in the day. Back then, most of us believed these innovations would be around for a long time. As it turned out, they were like so many technological flashes in the pan. All fairly quickly became collectors’ items and curiosities of history. The landscape is littered with the fossilized remains of technological dead ends.
A long-lasting technology in the medical world is one that solves a problem in a way that is difficult to improve upon. Such technologies can be distinguished from passing fads, and gadgets that amuse or entertain, then are quickly forgotten. Here are five medical technologies that are currently all the rage. Which ones will be with us for a while, and which will go the way of the 8-track?
The history of the wearable device goes all the way back to Leonardo da Vinci, who drew plans for a type of pedometer back in the 15th century. The first actual pedometer was probably created in Switzerland by 18th century watch makers. Thomas Jefferson is known to have brought a pedometer home with him from France. We have been tracking our steps ever since. The wearable pedometer concept has expanded quite a bit in the last 300 years. Market experts predict that wearables will swell to $34 billion in sales by 2020. Nevertheless, until wearables become more user-friendly and begin integrating data in a way that helps people improve their own health, wearables may be headed for the “Fad Bin.”
The word sounds like a term from science fiction, but in fact ‘cyborgization’ refers simply to the insertion of machines into the human body to repair or replace a broken function. The first cardiac pacemaker was implanted in 1958. It lasted 3 hours. Today, implanted cardiac cardioverter defibrillators measure abnormal heart rhythms and deliver life-saving shocks with remarkable accuracy. Cyborgization is here to stay. Thousands of lives depend on it.
According to Merriam-Webster, Augmented Reality (AR) is “an enhanced version of reality created by the use of technology to overlay digital information on an image of something being viewed through a device.” Many were introduced to AR via the Pokémon Go phenomenon, which fairly took over the world during the summer of 2016. Unfortunately for the medical world, AR remains little more than an amusement. Some prototypes have been developed, such as surgical applications for Microsoft Hololens, although according to one surgeon, the device isn’t ready for the operating theater just yet. But the technology is new and is likely to improve over time. New AR products in the pipeline promise to open some intriguing doors in the future.
According to Bertalan Mesko of The Medical Futurist, Artificial Intelligence (AI) promises to quickly accelerate the pace of improvements in disease management and patient care. This will happen not only because of computing breakthroughs such as IBM’s Watson and Google’s DeepMind, but also because of our constantly improving capacity to store enormous amounts of data. Mesko notes that by 2020, the digital world will grow to 44 zettabytes, or 44 trillion gigabytes. Solutions to difficult medical problems, then, depend on solutions to difficult data storage problems. Fortunately, the prognosis looks good.
The advent of 3D printing may turn out to be one of the most significant disruptive economic events of the 21st century, threatening to overthrow the entire manufacturing industry, full stop. The 3D printer is here to stay. The question is, how will these devices become integrated into the medical world? Some applications will work better than others. For example, the printing of limb prostheses may allow mine explosion victims in the Third World access to custom-fitted legs. On the other end of the spectrum are 3D printed drugs. The first 3D printed drug, SPRITAM® was approved by the FDA in 2015, but since then the production lines appear to have ground to a halt. This application may turn out to be great for limbs, but lousy for drugs.
No Crystal Ball
Yogi Berra once said (or was it Niels Bohr?) “Making predictions is hard, particularly about the future.” If 3D printed drugs take off, the developers will pull up this article and laugh about it at their IPO. Or the drug printers may end up on eBay, or some Museum of Natural History, displayed next to the 8-track tape player.