Picture the scene. You’re waiting for a doctor’s appointment in your local health centre. The décor is disconcerting, the crowd is tense the seats are rigid and the wait is long. And this is the best case scenario. Find yourself in a developing economy, and perhaps there aren’t enough doctors available and your nearest hospital is out of reach.

Innovations are happening at a phenomenal scale in order to meet the challenges of populations’ healthcare needs. Here are some of those geared towards consultation, diagnosis and treating some conditions, that could paint a picture of how future systems could work (the science of surgery and medicine is beyond the scope of this article). As you will see, the common theme is taking these processes out of inefficient outpatient/doctor visit systems and bringing them closer to the patient.

AI Services: bringing your doctor to you

A cliché of science fiction films you are probably familiar with is artificial intelligence taking the place the role that humans used to play. But future doctor appointments might be done in this way.

A company called Babylon, who specialise in telehealth, recently extended their app which allows users to consult with a doctor from their phone. Already available in the UK and Ireland, it was launched in Rwanda in May. In an interview with Healthcare Business International, a healthcare specialist business publication, the head of product, Prem Sharma, claimed the app already has 300,000 users and 100 doctors giving health advice.

Alongside the app, a new AI triage tool has been launched. Users talk about their symptoms and the app uses a huge database of symptoms and possible causes in order to best diagnose the patient and advise on course of action. The advice could be easy treatment options, or recommendations to visit a pharmacist or doctor.

Symptom checking tools already exist on websites like WebMD and the NHS’s main site. However, putting this dynamic into app form allows for a more direct evaluation. It also has the potential to develop and improve to a greater extent than a website, by storing medical records and keeping track of its visitors.

With algorithms becoming more sophisticated apps like Babylon’s AI service will become more and more responsive and finely tuned to the needs of the patient. Symptoms, age, background, medical history, location and public health information could all be combined to create an interface that is as close to a doctor as is possible.

And combined with holographic technologies like Microsoft’s HoloLens, you could find yourself talking to a virtual doctor and receiving real-time information: or a real doctor if they are available, but if the AI technology goes far enough there might not be much of a difference!

POCT: sending data to your doctor

In another article I speculated on the future of healthcare being a skype session with your doctor and a home testing kit by your side. Turns out we’re already moving in that direction.

POCT stands for point-of-care-testing: at its most obvious, it is patients using devices at home to test themselves, sending the information to medical experts for analysis and diagnosis. The growth of this technology will take pressure off A&E departments and swamped local health centres by moving one aspect of the process to the patients’ home.

Not only would it relieve pressure on health service infrastructure, it would also make it easier for the extremely sick and elderly to receive attention without having to send someone to their home. It speeds up the process too, ensuring quick diagnosis of potentially life-threatening conditions. Right now it is generally used to patients already diagnosed with a condition, in order to take day-to-day readings of things like haemoglobin and cholesterol.

But the wider potential for this is huge, and you could imagine there one day being an all in one box for home testing. Would you have been taken seriously if 50 years ago you had said that most homes would have a collection of medication in their cupboards; including paracetamol, temperature takers, and an assortment of treatments for everything from allergies to the common cold?

In the same way, it is possible that one day diagnosis will be also easily done in the home, as common medication is readily available and affordable for most of us. You could quite easily fit tests for a dozen common illnesses in a handy home testing kit the size of a suitcase. The question now is when this becomes widely standardized.

Medical Wearables: tracking your data on an ongoing basis

These are all the rage this year. They combined the technology of wearable devices with biosensor capabilities. An example is the Valedo Back Therapy device which is aimed for those with back problems. A device attaches to your back and collects data which is then used by the companion app to recommend posture exercises.

Then there is the HealthPatch MD. This is a remarkably disposable patch that allows healthcare professionals to keep tabs on the vitals of their patients. With ECG electrodes and a 3 axis accelerometer, it can keep track of a patient’s heart rate, breathing, temperature, activity and even body position in case of a fall or accident. Of course, it can also connect to a companion app for data collection.

While Google Glass was discontinued last year, it remains an active project. Along with technologies like Microsoft’s HoloLens, it has huge potential for healthcare services in the future.

  • Augmented reality for doctors and surgeons: having access to on-screen vitals at all times during surgery or appointments would make their job a lot easier
  • Telemedicine: video calling your doctor with the command of your voice
  • Virtual Dictation: rather than spending hours a day writing up and organising paperwork on patient data, experiments have successfully transcribed information from patient-doctor conversations into data

Many are sceptical over the viability of medical wearables and wearables in general, saying that we are not quite ready for them. Countless companies have gone under trying to establish their place in the market, and the discontinuation of Google Glass summed provided fuel to the fire of bio-wearables scepticism. But the amount of companies entering the market and the new products seen virtually every week are testament to them playing a huge role in the future delivery of healthcare.

The future for healthcare delivery? 

I’ve only gone over healthcare delivery, as the actual science of healthcare is far beyond my reach and would be better found in a scientific journal. In terms of the bigger picture, this has barely scratched the surface.

But regarding diagnosis and testing, it should be clear that the future is one of: AI interfaces replacing the need to see a health professional; should that fail, telehealth allowing video calling with said health professional; POCT further taking one step of the healthcare system out of the hospital and closer to the patient; and wearables allowing for more responsive and personal health monitoring.

It should be no surprise that the most talked about innovations we are currently will seeing are those geared towards relieving the pressure on physical infrastructure and making a more responsive and efficient system for all. One huge problem for health service deliverers right now is ramping up services to meet the demand. The new technologies talked about here should go some way to taking all the hassle out of healthcare. Because who likes going to see their doctor?