Imagine a surgeon is perched in front of a telecommunications console in New York City while his patient lies on an operating table 3,870 miles away at a hospital in Strasbourg, France. From the console, the physician remotely guides the movement of a three-armed surgical robot named Zeus to remove the 68-year-old patient’s diseased gallbladder. The operation takes less than an hour, and the patient recovers as expected, returning home two days later.
Sounds like something out of science fiction, doesn’t it? It’s not.
The transatlantic procedure actually happened in 2001. Known as Operation Lindbergh, named after American aviator Charles Lindbergh, the breakthrough event marked the world’s first complete, successful telesurgery procedure. It set a strong foundation for the role this technology could play in disrupting the boundaries of traditional healthcare and ushering the industry into the future.
So what does this medical revolution look like? With all the progress made in health innovation these days – advances in surgical robotics, virtual reality (VR) therapies and Internet of Things (IoT) diagnostic tools, just to name a few – it’s easy to picture the hospital of 2050 as a place where exam rooms look like a scene from The Jetsons, artificial intelligence takes the place of practitioners and every instrument connects to the cloud.
Realistically, however, changes in the healthcare industry are much more incremental, innovation experts in the field say, though that may not be the case for long.
The virtual doctor is in
One medical advancement gaining momentum, and which many healthcare providers believe will be a significant factor in the future of patient care, is telemedicine. Building on Operation Lindbergh, it’s based on the idea of physicians being able to deliver virtual care to patients any time, anywhere.
Telemedicine can be a tool to provide virtual care to underserved areas and places where demand for specialists is especially high. It can also be used to monitor patients with chronic illnesses and even save lives. For example, stroke patients’ chances of recovery depend greatly on rapid diagnosis and treatment. Emergency vehicles outfitted with computerized tomography (CT) scans and telemedicine devices can allow neurosurgeons to evaluate potential stroke sufferers and recommend a course of treatment en route to the hospital, thereby reducing the patient’s chance of permanent disability.
“Telemedicine inserts a layer of technology between physician and patient, which can be used to seamlessly insert sensors and computational algorithms that provide a more comprehensive and enabling way to diagnose and treat patients,” explains Yulun Wang, the chairman, chief innovation officer and founder of InTouch Health. His company has built robots that allow specialists to examine patients remotely – it currently services about 1,500 hospitals worldwide. He also founded Computer Motion, the company behind the robotic system Zeus used in Operation Lindbergh.
Ultimately, Wang says, telehealth services can help reduce costs – the US spent an estimated $3tn on healthcare in 2014 and 2015 – as well as improve outcomes and become the core methodology of healthcare delivery in the future. He adds that he expects it to one day be as accessible as online banking.
“Most healthcare delivery will be done virtually, instead of in person” 30 years from now, he predicts. “In fact, all healthcare delivery that can be done virtually will be, because it’s more convenient for the patient and more efficient for the provider.”
And put to work in conjunction with other emerging technologies, telemedicine can achieve more. “Artificial intelligence, such as machine learning, will be integrated cohesively into healthcare delivery through telemedicine so that big data sets can be gathered and analyzed to improve global care, like population health,” Wang says. “It will also improve individual care by matching the specifics of a patient’s diagnosis and treatment plan through millions of comparable cases.”
Lorna Ross of the Mayo Clinic Center for Innovation says solutions for more accessible, efficient and affordable healthcare experiences for patients shouldn’t rely solely on smart devices, but also on human-centric designs. That’s why her team works closely with practitioners and patients to look for opportunities and test solutions to spur innovation across Mayo Clinic’s locations.
The Center for Innovation’s projects have so far explored how redesigned exam suites can enhance patient-physician interaction, improved how staff members educate and prepare dialysis patients for care, and examined additions to Mayo’s prenatal care offerings like in-home monitoring and appointments via webcam.
“We use experimentation to build people’s tolerance for change,” says Ross, the center’s director of design. “These mechanisms we use to get people unstuck are important because healthcare is a fundamentally conservative community. Things don’t change very fast, so design is probably one of the most effective ways of [giving someone] confidence to let go of what’s known and safe and to embrace something that’s risky.”
2050 and beyond
As technology advances and the healthcare industry moves toward more outpatient procedures, telemedicine and self-monitoring, Ross foresees that in 2050, patients will only go to hospitals for complicated surgeries and emergencies. There’s also growing evidence, she says, that technology like virtual reality will be more widespread in medicine.
A 2015 report by Global Industry Analysts Inc. estimates the global market for virtual reality in healthcare will reach $3.8bn by 2020 as interest grows in expanding the tech for medical training, practice, psychiatry, rehabilitation and other uses. For example, some neurosurgeons are already using VR to get a sneak peek of a patient’s brain prior to surgery, so they can do the procedure more safely and efficiently.
Virtual reality is also being piloted at hospitals as a possible replacement for medication for post-operative pain management. Gaming and meditation programs are used as distractions to redirect a patient’s recognition of pain.
Ross also envisions a future in which IoT-powered exam rooms or smart spaces can capture conversations between physicians and patients and automatically upload key data in real time – freeing healthcare providers from clerical work.
“It’s not about what these tools can do, but what [doctors] don’t have to do,” she explains. “The interest we have is finding tools that free up physicians’ time to really focus on delivering the people-to-people care that we need.”
And what about computers and artificial intelligence taking the place of healthcare providers in the future? Well, she warns, don’t count human doctors out yet.
“I think there’s potential for partnering human intelligence with probability tools and analytics,” Ross says. “I think it could help with precision around diagnoses and treatment options and being able to bring quantitative data to the point of care. But it could never replace what happens on the human-to-human level.”