Trick or treat: Unwrapping the scary truths of heathtech

Thursday, 31st October 2019

Blog by Sector Group Manager, Ilona Alcock

Advances in health tech can start to sound like something out of your favourite scary movie but what’s the reality?

I caught up with Charlotte Lewis, Senior Associate at Mills & Reeve and Chair of pro-manchester’s Healthcare sector committee, to sort the facts from the fiction.

Is immortality just for vampires?

It is for now!

We are definitely living much longer though, largely as a result of public health measures such as childhood immunisations, the introduction of universal health care, medical advances and lifestyle changes, including a decline in smoking. By 2018 life expectancy at birth in England had increased to 79.6 years for males and 83.2 years for females.

Whilst most people want to live longer (even if not forever), they also want to live well during that period.  Healthy life expectancy in England in 2015-2017 was only 63.4 years for males and 63.7 years – meaning, on average, men would have spent 16.2 of those years and women would have spent 19.4 of those years in ‘not good’ health.

One of the aims of the NHS Long Term Plan is to focus on prevention and wellness. This requires not only system changes within the NHS but a mindset change amongst the population. Technology is already playing a key part in this transformation as more people are monitoring their own health, diet, sleep, exercise and mood with the help of digital devices such as smart watches and apps.  It is expected that this technology will be built into other items including clothing and possibly even the body itself.

Technology in the body… are we veering back into sci fi here?

Not at all, Digital Health is set to revolutionise medicine with the use of things such as nanotechnology.  Pills can be fitted with tracking systems which, when combined with a sensor on the skin, track digestion and the absorption of drugs after swallowing them. For example Otsuka and Proteus Digital Health have created a digestible sensor with a type of drug against mental illness. With the patient’s approval, the ingestible sensor communicates with a wearable sensor patch if the drug is taken, then the information is transmitted to a smartphone or tablet of the care giver or the patient.

RaniPill is a “robotoic” pill which is designed to puncture the inside of the intestinal wall with a drug-filled needle thanks to an inflatable balloon. The first human trial successfully tested out the inflatable balloon part of the design.  Further human studies will be conducted later this year and will include a drug-filled resorbable needle.

Impressive stuff! What else is in development?

Digital tattoos are on the horizon. With the development in 3D printing as well as circuit printing technologies, flexible electronics and materials, these digital tattoos could allow healthcare experts to monitor and diagnose critical health conditions such as heart arrhythmia, heart activities of premature babies, sleep disorders and brain activities noninvasively. By tracking vital signs 24 hours a day, without the need for a charger, it is especially suited for following patients with high risks of diseases such as stroke.

What about cyber surgeons? Surely that’s still fiction?

Actually not!

The world’s first telesurgery (uses wireless networking and robotic technology to allow surgeons to operate on patients who are distantly located) was carried out in 2001 by a surgical team in New York who performed a successful two-hour-long laparoscopic cholecystectomy on a female patient at a hospital in Strasbourg. Since then there have been huge advancements but the quality of the wireless connection is a huge risk.  It is expected that 5G technology has the potential to have a hugely positive impact on wirelesses human telesurgery.

Big data has been something of a modern horror story in the news recently, is that the case when we use it for healthcare too?  

With any personal data, it is essential that we have the proper regulations and protection. It is understandable that people are cautious about who has access to their health records, for example.

However, AI and big data can lead to huge improvements in predicting certain conditions. Google is investing heavily in health alerts and an algorithm from DeepMind predicted 90% of cases of acute kidney injury up to 48 hours before it occurred. This early intervention could prevent the need for dialysis or kidney transplants.

Ultimately, these advances could get us closer to the longer, healthier lives we all want.

We’ll be discussing the advancements in healthtech in our region at our upcoming Trailblazing Technology Conference on Friday 20th March 2020 at The Lowry Hotel. For more information on our key themes head to our website.