Modern technology is changing the face of medicine in today’s world. Technological advances are being used to simplify lengthy diagnostic processes, make treatments more comfortable, and increase access to vital medical procedures. Here are three categories of medicine that have seen drastic changes as a result of technological advancements.
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If you’ve ever watched an episode of House, MD, you may think you know quite a bit about diagnostic medicine. But real-life medical cases are rarely diagnosed, and successfully treated as quickly as they are in a 45 minute TV segment. In fact, doctors make diagnostic errors about 10% of the time, even in first-world countries. By creating digital scanners, technology experts hope to reduce human error, and provide wider access to diagnostic medicine.
Science fiction has long directed and informed research in medical and technological fields. Star Trek’s Tricorder—a noninvasive handheld scanner that allows medical personnel to perform an instant scan of their patient’s medical condition—has inspired a slew of new medical devices. Some, like the chip developed by Adamant Technologies, computerize scents to detect bad breath, low blood sugar, and blood-alcohol content. Others aim for complete diagnostic abilities, though none have claimed the Tricorder X-Prize. Yet.
Some of these scanners are already joining the machinery in the average medical office. For example, Mela Sciences in New York has developed an optical scanner that helps detect skin cancer. These cancers, such as carcinoma and melanoma, have previously required invasive surgical biopsy for diagnosis. Biopsy is expensive and leaves the patient with scarring.
The MelaFind scanner uses missile navigation technology originally developed by the Department of Defense to conduct a multispectral analysis of tissue. The scanner cannot yet definitively detect skin cancer, but it can help dermatologists rule out melanoma without ordering a biopsy.
Laser treatments revolutionized cosmetic procedures like permanent hair removal and fat reduction surgery. Laser treatments are less expensive, take less time, and require less recovery time than traditional surgeries.
Laser-assisted vision correction, commonly known as LASIK, has become so common that it’s advertised on billboards and radio and may even be covered by insurance. More than 12 million people have undergone the procedure. LASIK can eliminate the need for corrective lenses entirely and takes approximately 10 minutes to correct each eye.
But laser treatments are not limited to corrective procedures. Alberta Back & Neck Rehab, a chronic pain centre in Calgary, and other pain management centers use low-intensity lasers to stimulate the production of pain inhibiting hormones. In 10% of cases, a single procedure is enough to significantly reduce a patient’s chronic neck or back pain. In the long term, laser treatment encourages growth hormone production and lymphatic drainage, resulting in natural, permanent alleviation of the pain.
Diabetes affects an estimated 79 million people worldwide, with nearly 2 million new diagnoses being made each year in America alone. Monitoring and controlling diabetes requires patients to draw blood for glucose testing at least four times a day and self-administer insulin shots to help regulate their blood sugar levels (source: National Diabetes Education Program).
In the future, medical technologists hope to eliminate the need for this endless use of needles (which raises the patient’s risk of infection) by replacing testing and medicine administration with a patch. Echo Therapeutics is developing a biosensor patch which provides constant glucose monitoring and automatic administration of insulin.
But needleless delivery isn’t just changing the lives of diabetics. Researchers at King’s College in London have developed a system for needleless administration of vaccinations. The patch they created uses a microneedle array—tiny projections of sugar mixed with the vaccine. When pressed against the skin, the sugar and life-saving vaccine are absorbed into the blood stream.
Needleless vaccines promise not only to make vaccines more comfortable, but also more accessible. Without the danger of transporting and disposing of thousands of needles, it will be easier to provide vaccines to patients in remote locations such as overseas military troops, and children in developing countries. Someday, the risk of infection from shots may be eliminated completely as needles are replaced with other forms of medicine administration.
Advancements in medical technology are exciting. In a few years, your doctor may be able to diagnose and treat you via scanner in the comfort of your own home. Soon common medical accoutrements may look more like they came from your favorite science fiction program than your current doctor’s office.
By Brooke Chaplan