According to a report published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 2016, the future of the medical sector hinges on Convergence in Healthcare, a movement aiming to encourage the integration of concepts from the life sciences, chemistry, physical sciences, information technology (IT) and engineering sectors to accelerate innovation in research. Though each of these disciplines has much to contribute to the growth of Convergence in Healthcare, one of the most exciting and demonstrably beneficial to the movement is IT, which has revolutionized nearly every industry and presents exciting possibilities for the future of medicine.
As described in the MIT report “Convergence: The Future of Health,” here are three examples of the ways information technology is changing how we prevent, diagnose, and treat human illness.
IT is driving advances in imaging.
Though medicine has come a long way in the last century, there are still many truths science has yet to discover about health, the human body and illness. One of the best tools medical researchers have to improve healthcare is imaging, which allows scientists to study the living body more fully, leading to a better understanding of its organs and how they function. Many consider the beginning of the first revolution in life sciences to be the invention of the X-ray in 1895. From this technology, groundbreaking inventions such as the electrocardiograph, computerized axial tomography (CAT) scans and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) were developed.
IT is important to the advancement of imaging due primarily to the need for Big Data analytics programs to synthesize information collected via advanced imaging tools relying on technologies like electron microscopy, mass spectrometry, fluorescence and bioluminescence. Newly developed, convergent imaging methods can collect much larger clinical datasets to study the behavior of cells and molecules in the human body, as in multiplexed error-robust florescence in situ hybridization (MERFISH). Through the use of MERFISH technology, researchers can measure tens of thousands of cells in one day. Scientists can then use Big Data analytics to process this information and connect it to related pathology data, creating a map, of sorts, for understanding which genes are active in which cells. This could possibly lead to effective treatments of diseases that are highly heterogeneous in nature, such as cancer.
IT-driven smart devices are changing how researchers study and diagnose illness.
To provide the best treatment, physicians must have more information available than a correct diagnosis, but for many, a diagnosis is all they have. In addition, though many illnesses are not treated as such, the reason a disease manifests is determined by more than genetics, and is also influenced by a patient’s environmental and behavioral factors, including diet, lifestyle and geographic location. This kind of patient data can be difficult to obtain. Sometimes, doctors only have past electronic medical records to rely on, or imprecise answers to questions asked in patient interviews.
Information technology allows medical researchers to change the way patient health is assessed, again through the analysis of large streams of data collected via consumer-focused health IT products. Researchers are using information technology to develop devices capable of collecting a wide variety of active and passive data to get a more comprehensive picture of patient health. For example, wearable sensors can keep track of basic health information such as blood sugar levels or daily food intake, and even measure indirect influences on patient health, such as air quality or proximity to food-borne toxins. These devices also can measure and store information such as deviations from typical heart rhythms and spikes or drops in blood pressure, among many other metrics. Through the use of such IT products, the health research community could have access to greater amounts of data before, during and after patients’ diagnoses. This would give medical researchers access to more information as they work to make earlier, more accurate diagnoses.
IT is leading to more affordable diagnostic and maintenance tools.
For many people in the United States, living with an illness is an expensive, time-consuming experience. For example, according to the American Diabetes Association, the national cost of diagnosed diabetes is $327 billion per year. Apart from the expense of drugs, supplies and inpatient treatment, patients also carry the indirect cost of lost work hours due to disability, and time spent on diabetes self-care.
IT has led to technological advances that may one day assist people with diabetes through the development of products such as “smart” insulin, an injectable technology which could theoretically be used to monitor and automatically respond to the body’s blood sugar needs. Additionally, IT has led researchers to experiment with the design of contact lenses that continuously monitor the body’s glucose levels through the wearer’s tears. When the levels are too high, the lenses automatically turn off a miniaturized LED light contained within the lenses, alerting the wearer. Technology such as this could save diabetes patients money, time and the pain of drawing blood throughout the day to monitor glucose levels.