"Wearable medical technology" has a dystopic ring to it. Replacing surgeons with robots? Swapping human parts for bionic ones? Swallowing microchips instead of medicine?
As disturbing as it is to picture artificial intelligence standing in for human-based healthcare, we also can't argue against the enormous benefits of incorporating wearable devices with medicine. Check out eight types of wearable tech that will help doctors treat — and even prevent — the world's worst health problems.
1. Wearables For Chronic Disease
Wearable medical devices typically target the four most common chronic diseases in the US: heart disease, diabetes, hypertension (a.k.a. high blood pressure), and respiratory diseases (like emphysema and chronic bronchitis). These devices include wearables that track blood pressure levels, contact lenses that monitor diabetes, and patches that detect asthma and heart disease. There's even a wearable strap that triggers natural pain relief to people suffering from chronic pain!
Considering almost 66% of doctors would prescribe an app that helps patients monitor their chronic disease, wearables will be the next best move to mitigate the life-threatening effects of chronic illnesses.
2. Wireless Headsets
Last year, Imec and Holst Centre introduced a new wireless electroencephalogram (EEG) headset to the world. Since an EEG test detects abnormalities in the brain's electrical activity, this headset can monitor emotions, mood, and concentration, and diagnose brain disorders like epilepsy, sleep, dementia, and ADHD.
The EEG headset is wireless (and much less invasive than a standard EEG), so it offers a more practical, comfortable way for individuals to understand and overcome setbacks related to brain function.
3. Augmented Reality Devices
Because augmented reality (AR) devices display and process information in real-time, they'll be extremely beneficial to operating rooms, doctor's offices, and rehab centers. Google Glass, for instance, has been used to livestream a surgery from the surgeon's perspective. Researchers at the University of Houston have tested a VR program that places addicts in lifelike scenarios, like a dinner or party, so they can practice avoidance tactics that help them stay clean.
And most recently, the HoloLens made its debut in March, using 3D holograms to help medical students and doctors analyze specific parts of the human body.
Other AR devices can facilitate clinical consultations, display a patient's electronic medical records, and provide an ambulance with a patient's exact GPS location.
4. Eye Lens Implants
Last year, a Canadian doctor revealed general plans for the Ocumetics Bionic Lens, a lens implant that can restore sight and boost vision up to three times better than 20/20. And just weeks ago, Google filed a patent for an electronic lens that could be injected directly into your eye. Both devices are years away from actually being used in operating rooms, but if they hold to their promises, they could provide a permanent solution to drastically improve — even restore — eyesight.
5. Bionic Suits
Imagine if, after years of paralysis, you could stand on your own two feet. Ekso Bionics, a pioneer in the field of robotic exoskeletons, has made that seemingly impossible idea a reality. Ekso's "wearable robot" helps paralyzed patients walk via mechanical legs. When the user moves their leg slightly forward, the suit senses the leg's movement and gives mechanical assistance so the person can take a step.
Ekso's bionic suits are an incredible feat of medical technology, but they aren't cheap. A single suit goes for about $100,000, so they're typically sold to rehab centers so several patients can use them.
Robots won't completely replace humans in the medical field. (At least, not yet.) But they can help doctors get better results. Here are three types of robots that work with doctors, nurses, and medications to treat life-threatening health issues.
Surgical robots help doctors plan, simulate, and perform actual surgeries. They allow doctors to perform less invasive surgical procedures, even if the doctor is located a continent away from the patient. Imagine getting surgery from a doctor on the other side of the world!
Humanoid robots are built to resemble the shape of the human body. They're being developed to provide basic care and companionship to patients in nursing homes and hospitals. One type of robot nurse assistant will use image-analysis technology to draw blood from a patient's arm. Another humanoid bot, nicknamed "Russell," helps autistic children develop basic social skills.
Nanorobots are microscopic chips that travel in the bloodstream to fight off disease. Nanorobotics is still in the research and development phase, but it has the enormous potential to intervene before a life-threatening disease appears in your body.
Respirocytes, for example, can safely oxygenate a patient's tissues up to four hours after a heart attack. The "DNA Nanocage" would contain cancer-fighting medicine in an ingestible pill. Other nanosensor chips can alert the patient (via smartphone) of signs of infection, heart attack, or other issues in the body's arteries.
Plus, researchers at the Houston Methodist Research Institute are studying — in space! — the effects of using a dime-sized implantable chip to more efficiently deliver medicine into the human body. As nanotechnology continues to develop within the medical arena, doctors will have a better chance to diagnose and treat the most devastating diseases.
7. Ingestible Nanochips
While nanorobots have yet to hit the market, nanochips are already available to help doctors monitor your body's internal systems. The Helius "smart pill" contains a vitamin-sized chip and sensor that you can swallow. Once inside the body, the "pill" gives real-time feedback on the physiological effects of a patient's prescription medications.
The PillCam Colon is another smart pill that can screen patients for early signs of colon cancer. Once the pill is ingested, it dissolves so that the mini embedded camera can travel through the digestive tract and transmit images to a smartphone or tablet. The images aren't as clear as those taken during an in-office colonoscopy, but the PillCam Colon benefits the 750,000 Americans who can't undergo a standard colonoscopy.
8. Scanners For Instant Diagnoses
Star Trek fans know the tricorder scanner as the trusty gadget Dr. McCoy used to instantly diagnose a medical condition. By 2017, that sci-fi tool could become an actual medical device. The Qualcomm Tricorder XPrize is a $10 million competition to build a self-contained, handheld device that can track patients' vital signs, diagnose medical conditions — and then transmit that data to patients' doctors.
One device in the running is the "Scanadu Scout." This tiny sensor, which is now being tested in 70 countries, can check someone's vital signs just by touching their forehead.
In a statement, Tricorder X Prize Director Grant Campany said, “The accomplishments the teams have made so far in this competition are nothing short of remarkable. The prototypes they delivered are perhaps some of the most intricate diagnostic devices under development today and have the potential to change the way healthcare is delivered."
The prize was originally set to be awarded in January to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Star Trek. But the deadline was extended another year to add a second phase of consumer testing and allow competitors to further refine their devices.
When these real-life tricorders hit the market, they will drastically affect how people — especially those who live in remote areas or don't have time to visit their doctors — get access to reliable healthcare.
Wearable Medical Technology Will Reshape Your Health
Continued advancements in wearable technology will transform the medical field in two ways:
1. They will allow doctors to more quickly and accurately diagnose, treat, and prevent debilitating health conditions.
2. They will increase patients' access to care. When healthcare services become cheaper and easier to use, patients have more freedom to decide when, where, and how they manage their health.
Which new technologies will have the longest-lasting impacts on our health? We'll just have to wait and see.