Anyone interested in what the future holds should read science fiction stories and watch science fiction films. While the future will not turn out quite like in Star Trek or the movie Ex Machina, such stories can serve as a valuable source of inspiration for us. Science fiction is the glue which binds today and tomorrow. It helps us with the exponential thinking we need to make meaningful assumptions about what the future is likely to bring. Linear thinking – which simply extrapolates current developments into the future – will not take us forward. This is already evident from a glance at the many industries that have undergone radical changes over the past few years due to the internet, such as retail and the media.
At first sight, the healthcare sector is facing an era of change. A real tsunami is approaching, but its full impact will only be felt in a few years. Many different examples give an idea of how severe these changes will be. Today, paralysed people are able to walk again thanks to an exoskeleton, 3D printers enable custom-fit casts and splints for individual patients, and there are plans for drones to deliver defibrillators to emergency patients should a doctor be unable to get there in time. All this would have been considered science fiction just a few years ago. Today, it is reality.
For those who are inspired by science fiction and are familiar with current trends in healthcare and information technology, and who think exponentially on this basis, several different trends can be identified that are highly likely to become reality over the next few years.
TREND 1: SELF-AWARE PATIENTS
Patients’ self-image is already evolving. However, it will undergo an even more radical transformation. Not only are patients more self-aware and more critical of what doctors and pharmaceutical manufacturers tell them than they used to be. There is more intent on informing themselves – both prophylactically as well as about diseases they have been diagnosed with, and possible treatments. The internet enables patients to achieve a level of knowledge approaching that of doctors, if only they invest enough time. And what is more, ever more patients will in future insist on playing a more active role in deciding what happens to them. For companies in the healthcare sector and for doctors, this means adapting to the fact that patients will demand to be treated as partners.
TREND 2: VICTORY PARADE OF THE SENSORS
Sensors that measure and assess the vital functions of many people will spread rapidly over the next few years. So-called electronic tattoos are already available on the market. They continuously measure the body temperature, pulse rate and blood pressure of the person to whose skin the tattoo is attached. Sensors might soon be installed in bathrooms in people’s homes. They could, for instance, analyse people’s urine every day. This offers many new opportunities for health insurers; for example people who follow a health-conscious lifestyle could be offered discounts. Moreover, increasing numbers of people are seeking to optimise their health themselves. For example, they can record the number of deep sleep periods they have during the night – and adjust their daytime behaviour so as to achieve better recovery at night-time.
also known as ‘The Medical Futurist’
is an Amazon Top 100 author, keynote speaker and researcher. With more than 500 presentations (e.g. courses at the Harvard, Stanford and Yale universities; Singularity University’s Futuremed course at NASA Ames campus and organisations including the ten biggest pharmaceutical companies), he is one of the top voices globally on healthcare technology. Dr Meskó was featured by dozens of top publishers, including CNN, National Geographic, Forbes, Time magazine, the BBC, and the New York Times.
TREND 3: 3D PRINTING
Even now, cancer medications are frequently produced on a customised basis for each individual patient. In future, the same approach will be followed for many other medicines. Once a doctor has determined the right combination of active ingredients, he will send this data to a pharmacy, which will use a 3D printer to produce customised pills for the patient concerned. Initial trials using this method have already been successfully completed – they show that these pills even break down particularly quickly in the patient’s body. Soon, 3D printers will no longer just be used to manufacture pills but also, for instance, to produce entire body parts, which patients will receive as transplants.
TREND 4: VIRTUAL TESTING OF NEW ACTIVE INGREDIENTS
Currently, pharmaceutical research companies have to conduct a laborious series of trials in order to test new active ingredients. This process takes many years and requires the participation of a large number of patients, who are often exposed to a certain degree of risk. This might soon be a thing of the past, however, thanks to computers that are able to process large amounts of data – experts call this “big data”. In future, new active ingredients might thus undergo virtual testing without the involvement of actual patients. A further advantage is that computers could test thousands of different combinations of active ingredients within a very short space of time and identify the best ones. This would save pharmaceutical manufacturers a lot of time and bring new medicines onto the market much faster than in the past. It may even soon be possible to use artificial intelligence for testing active ingredients.
TREND 5: AUGMENTED AND VIRTUAL REALITY
Augmented reality has been on everybody’s lips for many months now due to the Pokémon Go smartphone game – in future, it will be an everyday occurrence in the healthcare industry. There are various possible applications: augmented reality will enable doctors to participate in operations – or even to perform them – remotely. Data glasses will enable significantly more effective shared training for junior medics than was possible in the past, such as in a virtual dissecting room. And during an operation performed under local anaesthetic, patients will wear data glasses that show them pictures of their home so that they feel at ease, despite the unfamiliar environment.
All of these radical changes have one thing in common: at first glance, they appear to be the consequences of a technological revolution. Yet in actual fact, they reflect a cultural revolution, above all, in the sense that people are at the heart of things. This is especially true of patients, who will enjoy a partnership of equals with the protagonists in healthcare. Their needs and wishes will shape the development of the healthcare sector as never before.
Healthcare companies must adapt so as to keep up with these rapid changes – and ideally help to push them forward themselves. To do so, they must welcome the new opportunities that information technology affords. They must ensure that new ideas are implemented quickly. They must urge the regulatory authorities to make rapid and pragmatic decisions. And, above all, they must transform their self-image. Even a big company will in future be increasingly less capable of safeguarding its success on its own. To achieve this, it will require a network of many partners, first and foremost among them: patients.