Technologies to change medicine in 2022 and beyond


That the Covid-19 pandemic has advanced digital transformation and improved how healthcare is managed around the world in unimaginable ways cannot be underestimated.

In the past two years, predictions made for the entire decade came to pass, thanks to rapid technological adoption in a bid to save humanity from the threat of extermination by other diseases.

Technology has proven crucial to keeping the global healthcare industry resilient in the wake of unique challenges, while restoring hope for many communities as the virus ravaged through villages.

The pace of tech-based healthcare solutions adoption is set to accelerate. HealthyNation looks at five technologies expected to shape global medicine in 2022 and beyond:

1. 4D Printing
You’ve probably heard of 3D printing, the process of making a physical object from a three-dimensional digital model, typically by laying down many thin layers of a material in succession. Industrialists call it additive manufacturing and scientists are now advancing it to a four-dimensional process where doctors will use it to produce human implants, body tissues, bones, blood vessels and even whole organs. Time is the element that pushes 3D to 4D, creating printed materials that change their shape over time. Shape-shifting materials could be used for small, implantable medical devices. Tiny, soft devices could be inserted or implanted in people, and harden when they reach the affected area. 4D models could simply be personalised according to the patient’s pathology, thus offering an opportunity for making patient care effective and efficient. 

Targeted drug administering is the major application where the therapeutic drug is delivered in a specific location of the human body. 

To accomplish this, 4D printed devices are proficient in carrying therapeutic drugs to the targeted location when it activates the precise stimuli.  

Expect a growing application of 4D printers in dental implants such as dentures, bridges and crowns. Perhaps the earliest successful applications will come in the areas of tissue regeneration or regenerative medicine. 4D bioprinting is a process of printing materials with living cells, most often for product testing and reconstructive surgery. Because the printed objects contain living cells, they grow and morph into living tissue over time. Poietis, a French bioprinting firm developing its own 4D printing platform was the first to commercialise a bioprinted synthetic skin, Poieskin. 

2. Quantum computing
Quantum what? What a mouthful! 
We are living in an age where it no longer matters whether a technological term is jargon or not as patients only think of one thing when bed-ridden — to recover. 

Quantum computing is an area of computing focused on developing computer technology based on the principles of quantum theory, which explains the behaviour of energy and material on the atomic and subatomic levels. The laptop or smartphone you are using can only encode information in bits that take the value of one or zero, restricting their ability. Quantum computing, on the other hand, uses quantum bits or qubits. It harnesses the unique ability of subatomic particles that allows them to exist in more than one state. Understood? Quantum computing has the potential to improve the analysis of medical images, including processing steps, such as edge detection and image matching. These improvements would considerably enhance image-aided diagnostics. According to IBM, the company advancing the use of the innovation, quantum computing will become popular as it will help in precision medicine, diagnostic assistance and the pricing of health insurance premiums, fraud detection and risk analysis. Quantum-enhanced machine learning could support breakthroughs in drug sensitivity at the cellular level. 

For example, by taking into account the genomic features of cancer cells and the chemical properties of drugs, models that can predict the effectiveness of cancer drugs at a granular level are already being investigated. The technology will also help to get insights from additional health-relevant data to efficiently arrive at a continuous and precise health status for faster treatment decisions.

One challenge in the medical arena has been the classification of cells based on their many physical and biochemical characteristics. These cause the feature space, that is, the abstract space in which the predictor variables live, to be large. Such classification is important, for example, in distinguishing cancerous cells from normal cells. 

3. 5G Networks
This is perhaps the technology that sits at the centre of all other emerging technologies. 

Adding a high-speed 5G network to existing architectures can help quickly and reliably transport huge data files of medical imagery, which can improve both access to care and the quality of care. While telemedicine has been with us for a decade now, 5G is expected to expand its reach, supporting real-time high-quality video consultations. Patients will soon get treated faster and have access to specialists while allowing doctors to collaborate better.

While augmented reality, virtual reality and spatial computing are already being used in healthcare on a limited basis, 5G may eventually further enhance a doctor’s ability to deliver innovative, less invasive treatments. Among 5G’s many ultimate potential applications, some of the most exciting involve its role in simulating complex medical scenarios and enabling alternative treatments for the critically ill. By using Internet-of-Things devices, healthcare providers can monitor patients and gather data that can be used to improve personalised and preventive care. 

According to American health insurance firm Anthem, 86 per cent of doctors say wearables, which are a common type of remote monitoring, increase patient engagement with their own health. Additionally, wearables are predicted to decrease hospital costs by 16 per cent in the next five years.

Despite the benefits, remote monitoring technology usage is limited by the capacity of the network to handle the data. Slow network speeds and unreliable connections could mean doctors are unable to get the real-time data they need to make quick healthcare decisions. With 5G technology, which has lower latency and higher capacity, healthcare systems can offer remote monitoring for more patients. With the use of artificial intelligence (AI) to determine potential diagnoses and decide on the best treatment plan for a specific patient in top gear, large amounts of data needed for real-time rapid learning require ultra-reliable and high-bandwidth networks. Additionally, AI on 5G can help predict which patients are more likely to have post-operative complications, allowing healthcare systems to provide early interventions when necessary.

4. Robotic surgery
Robot-assisted surgery allows doctors to perform many types of complex procedures with more precision, flexibility and control than is possible with conventional techniques. 

Robotic surgery is usually associated with minimally invasive surgery — procedures performed through tiny incisions. 

It is also sometimes used in certain traditional open surgical procedures. The most widely used clinical robotic surgical system includes a camera arm and mechanical arms with surgical instruments attached to them. The surgeon controls the arms while seated at a computer console near the operating table. The console gives the surgeon a high-definition, magnified, 3-D view of the surgical site.

The surgeon leads other team members who assist during the operation. Surgeons who use the robotic system find that for many procedures it enhances precision, flexibility and control during the operation and allows them to better see the site, compared with traditional techniques. Using robotic surgery, surgeons can perform delicate and complex procedures that may have been difficult or impossible with other methods. With these advances, cheaper and safer robots can be designed for each patient and procedure, making them non-invasive and more cost-effective. 

5. Nanomedicine
Nano means microscopic. Nanomedicine is a branch of medicine that applies the knowledge and tools of nanotechnology to the prevention and treatment of diseases. 

It involves the use of nanoscale materials such as biocompatible nanoparticles and nanorobots for diagnosis, delivery, sensing or actuation purposes in a living organism. 

Referred to as the future of medicine, nanomedicine promises to improve the rate of drug delivery, especially in treating tumours, cancer, cardiovascular, and neurodegenerative diseases. 

Nanomedicines offer diagnostics and nanoscale to identify a disease at the earliest possible stage. That means a single ill behaving cell would be detected and cured. The tech is enabling new breakthroughs in regenerative medicine, giving hope to patients with organ failure or severe injuries. Research on using the tech to create artificial skin, bone and cartilage is advancing to help patients.

Taiwanese company Acura NanoMedicine Inc announced a ground-breaking nanotech-based solution to reduce instances of drug resistance and give new life to cancer treatments last month.