Most of us grew up in this new generation and always had antibiotics, vaccines, and MRI scans. But they are relatively new technology, despite what we may think. Compared to the ancient world, primitive medicine, and the early concepts of Hippocrates, all we have looks like “true medicine”, and not blind attempts to solve medical issues.
It is very likely that, in a few years ahead, generations to follow will think the same about our medical advances. But what could possibly improve in modern medicine? What lies ahead in the future? And if we know the possible steps forward, what is obstructing the way?
A glimpse to the future
Sometimes reality is better than fiction, and if we know where to look, there are enough scientific advancements to fill the argument of a science fiction movie. What are we talking about? Let’s break it down into 5 different fields:
- Big data and healthcare systems: We look ahead at the future, but right now we have an advanced healthcare system. Digitalized data can be transferred from one place to another, and medical records are gathered in one place. We even have monitors to carry around and collect healthcare data seamlessly. Used appropriately, all of these advances can show useful information instantaneously that may become a useful aid in the diagnostic process.
- Healthcare robotics: Robots are not a futuristic approach of medicine. They are already here. They are not exactly artificial intelligence, but through healthcare robotics it is possible to make very precise movements in surgery that may mark the limit of success. Robotics have also reduced the repetitive workload of laboratory assistants and other personnel that may be required elsewhere.
- Nanotechnology: This field of medicine is still relatively new, but there are enough studies to create medical applications. And I’m not talking about the future; I’m talking about right now. In this moment, nanotechnology can be used to create very small particles that deliver drugs, light, or any other substance to a given target cell. You can call them microscopic robots, and what they do is executing their commands once they reach their target cells.
- Gene editing: It was always a dream, but it is now possible through a technology called CRISPR. This stands for “Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats”. Without the medical jargon, what it means is performing minute changes in the genome of cells by using. This is the most revolutionary system, and was preceded by other gene editing tools using certain viruses that introduce genetic material into the DNA. In 2019, the very first patients were treated with CRISPR technology. They suffered from a blood condition called beta thalassemia, and the preliminary results are very encouraging.
- Neuroscience: The human mind is one of the most complex systems we can study, but neuroscience has made huge advances, especially since the introduction of imaging diagnostic tools. We do have devices that read the electrical activity in the brain and translate them into commands. These machines can actually read the mind and move a prosthetic in a paralyzed patient. Impressive as it may seem, we don’t have to look ahead at the future to experience these and many other sci-fi dreams.
What comes ahead
We are living the medicine of the future, but there’s still much more to develop. In a few years, our medical advancements may even feel totally inaccurate, outdated, and terribly ineffective. Let us review each one of the topics covered above, but this time with a futuristic and very encouraging approach.
- Big data and healthcare systems: We do have advanced digital healthcare systems, but they are far from being completely functional. Sometimes, using digital technology is subject to processing delays, and there’s not a standardized medical record. All of this can change in the future, allowing doctors to obtain accurate and up-to-date medical data of patients, even if they came from a distant country or underwent a medical procedure they don’t recall. Live monitoring can raise alerts and prevent disease even before an emergency comes, and many lives can be saved if we understand how to use big data.
- Healthcare robotics: Robots are still a recent technology, compared to our wildest dreams. We don’t have the artificial intelligence we often see in sci-fi movies, which can be pretty helpful for heavy workloads such as caring for older adults with a degenerative disease or providing healthcare assistance and primary care solutions to families without leaving their home. The field of robotics is very wide and allows for stimulating our imagination with the most “futuristic” scenes.
- Nanotechnology: It’s actually being born, and there is still much to do. If the medical advancements on nanotechnology work as they should, pharmaceutics will be revolutionized with targeted drugs and very specific treatments with few to no side effects. Nanotechnology may create the basis of the cure of cancer, and it is very encouraging that it is actually being studied for that purpose.
- Gene editing: This field is very controversial, but what the future holds includes not only curing genetic disease in adult life but also modifying the genetic makeup of embryos before they differentiate their body parts and organs. This revolutionary technology may even hold a definite solution to aging, assuming it is mainly caused by overlapped genetic changes in tissues and organs.
- Neuroscience: We would all want to learn jiu-jitsu in one click, just like Neo did in the famous sci-fi cult picture The Matrix. This will be possible if neuroscience figures out how memories are recorded and how to create new brain connections and record information in the brain. The applications of this technology may not only impact learning but also become an alternative for Alzheimer’s disease, age-related dementia, and other causes of cognitive impairment. For now, this appears to be far ahead in the future, but we never know what surprises we have along the way.
We’re getting there
If you look closely at the scenarios above, you can see the future of medicine is usually not very far from what we have now. But what do we need to make the leap?
The answer is not so simple as it seems. Actually, everything is a bit more complex. For example, a standardized digital healthcare system is not easy to establish, and there are privacy issues, bugs, and other potential problems on the way. The level of complexity of nanomedicine and neuroscience makes it difficult to make reality an idea. And even if we’re able to perform the most accurate gene replacements in test tubes, doing the same thing in humans comes with many ethical issues that won’t allow human experimentation in the first place.
Are we breaking these challenges in the near future? The reason why these advancements take time is because they need to overcome one barrier after the other, and even when new technologies prove to be useful, they are faced with a new challenge: cost-effectiveness. In other words, who would want to try an extremely expensive technology that may yield adverse effects?
As it happens with every new technology, even if developers are reluctant to accept, clinical trials do not fully guarantee safety. Sometimes, the only way to obtain a list of less frequent side effects is after releasing new tech to the wide public. What ethical committee will allow this if the human genome of thousands of patients were at risk? The same goes with altering the brain circuitry or using the full potential of nanotechnology.
We all want to see the future of medicine, and it may not be long before the next breakthrough. Until then, we will be waiting for each baby step, knowing that developing sci-fi technology takes time because it is not being taken lightly.