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4 Ways Sci-Fi Tech Is Already Revolutionizing Medicine

The next time you have surgery, your doctor might have practiced on you in virtual reality first.

4 Ways Sci-Fi Tech Is Already Revolutionizing Medicine
[Illustrations: TerryM via Shutterstock]

You might not get a robot best friend, or a trip around the world in virtual reality any time soon. But in one field, some of these ultra-hyped trends are actually looking like the technologies of today.

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The medical industry certainly has a complicated relationship with technology. Just look at the challenges with digital health records; today, most Americans’ health records still live in a filing cabinet somewhere.

But digital records aside, the med-tech scene is a truly exciting place. Some of the coolest, most futuristic new ideas are quickly finding a home there. And in many cases, they’re creating an immediate impact that far surpasses expectations. Unfortunately, these breakthroughs don’t seem to get as much attention as trendy consumer projects. But they’re driving a quiet revolution in medicine–one that promises to deliver cheaper health care, better doctors, and healthier people on a remarkable scale.

Here are four of the most exciting trends:

Robotics

We all know Amazon deliveries will arrive via drone some day, but robots have actually been a big deal in health care for some time. Since gaining FDA clearance back in 2000, the Da Vinci Surgical System has performed over 1.5 million operations worldwide. When manned by a human operator, robotic surgery can ensure a greater degree of control and precision–especially important when operating on delicate organs like the prostate gland. Despite some setbacks, the popularity of these systems continues to increase, as hospitals expand their use to other types of operations like lung and heart surgery.

Even away from the operating room, robots are working to keep us healthy. The new Mission Bay Hospital in San Francisco employs an entire fleet of robots to transport supplies around the hospital floor. They can navigate freely, and even open doors and call elevators by themselves.

Another fairly recent breakthrough truly sounds like science fiction. Researchers are actively testing the use of microbots–miniscule robots–for medical entry into our bloodstreams. Controlled by motors and microprocessors, they may soon be delivering drugs to targeted organs, tissues, or even specific cells.

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Wearables

Quite simply, the ability to shrink sensors and connect them to the Internet is driving a revolution in health care. Health-tracking devices open vast new potential to gather data, monitor problems, and keep us healthy.

And step counts and calorie counters are just the beginning (although I’m optimistic that even simple metrics like these can transform our overall health awareness).

Google has been developing a contact lens that can monitor glucose levels, instantly alerting diabetics of any dangerous changes without the need for a pinprick. This device may come on the market within the year. Meanwhile, many experts believe that “ingestibles”–sensor devices that actually go inside our bodies- will become the norm for monitoring health conditions, often in real time.

3-D printing

This is one of the most obvious–and exciting–new technologies in health care. 3-D printers are starting create all kinds of devices and supports for medical use.

Just a few months ago, an Australian team achieved an important milestone: implanting the first ever 3-D printed jaw.

To take a different application, correctly sizing implanted devices, such as atrial defibrillators, wastes a lot of time and money in the health care industry. The process frequently goes by trial-and-error, and incorrectly sized devices must be discarded, costing tens of thousands of dollars. However, now doctors can use a 3-D printed prototype of the relevant anatomy to accurately size the device before trying to implant it.

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Future developments could lead to even bigger advances, as some experts think learning from 3-D printed tumors could be a game-changer in the fight to cure cancer.

Virtual reality

Yes, the Oculus Rift is the hottest thing in technology, and I look forward to battling wizards in virtual reality. But as of today, this technology is showing tremendous potential for helping surgeons and radiologists work more quickly and accurately. At my company, EchoPixel, we convert imaging data from MRIs, ultrasounds, and CT scans into interactive virtual reality scenes. Before diagnosing or operating on a patient, doctors can manipulate and examine virtual replicas of their exact organs in 3-D, to fully understand what they’re dealing with.

Image-guided virtual reality surgery in the operating room is making exciting progress as well. And interactive imaging opens up a whole new way for medical professionals to communicate with each other, and with patients. Forget digital health records on a spreadsheet. Let’s put those notes in an interactive VR scene, where doctors can actually mark key structures, and show patients exactly what they’re talking about.

Technology continues to delight and inspire us personally, but apps and video games are not alone on the cutting edge of innovation. There’s a lot of exciting stuff happening in the medical sphere–and with many of these trends, we’re just getting started.

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