Historically, medicine has been an industry strongly rooted in tradition, but the last two decades have seen it undergo a fundamental shift. As biotech has advanced in leaps and bounds, dramatically changing the treatment options available to many patients and enabling doctors to cure diseases that had proved intractable for centuries, so other forms of technology have changed the way that medical centers are run and the way that common procedures are carried out. Staff have had to adapt to new ways of thinking as old procedures have changed forever. A leaner, smarter, and more responsive way of doing things that can potentially produce much better results for patients, the new approach still presents challenges for those who work in this environment. Not only is there a lot to learn now, but also the pace of change shows no sign of slowing down.
One of the subtler changes, but enormous in its impact, has come from advances in computing, which now make it possible to handle data on a scale utterly impossible in the recent past. Not only has this been responsible for much of the progress in biotech, enabling researchers to model cell lines effectively in virtual reality and use big data to track epidemics, for example, but also it is making it much easier for doctors and hospitals to keep track of patient records and ensure that treatments are managed efficiently. There has been an increase in demand for computer specialists in the industry, and institutions such as Maryville University are busily training the next generation.
Of all the technological changes that have been taking place in surgery, perhaps the most striking is the ability of surgeons to operate remotely through robots. Initially, this approach made a lot of people nervous, but now it’s widely recognized that robots have steadier “hands” than humans do and that remote surgery means that more people can access treatment by the most skilled individuals out there. Also of major significance has been the improvement and further development of keyhole surgery, enabling procedures to be carried out with far less tissue damage and, consequently, getting patients in and out of hospital more quickly.
Wound care is an area where technological changes have been more subtle but have made an equally dramatic difference. On the one hand, new scaffolds have been developed that allow wounds to close over more effectively as tissue regrows across them. On the other, there have been major advances in bandage technology, such as the introduction of scaled down, much more efficient vacuum bandages, which ensure healthy blood flow through areas that are healing. Together, these technologies mean that wounds are able to be closed up faster, so there are fewer complications, and there’s a significantly lower risk of opportunistic infections taking hold.
Implants and add-ons
Not so many years ago, the idea of a person walking around with an electronic pacemaker fitted in their body sounded absurd. Now, these things are commonplace, and many new devices are being used to facilitate healthier living. Eye implants are restoring sight to people with damaged retinas, and artificial vertebrae are protecting the spines of accident victims. Artificial limbs have gone through a similar revolution, with a new generation of lightweight metal alloys and tough plastics enabling the creation of limbs that are light enough to wear all day and that, thanks to advances in electronics, offer much more flexibility and control, directed by the mind of the user. The next big change will take place when the bio-printed artificial organs now at the testing stage move out of the lab and replacing damaged body parts with bio-artificial ones becomes standard practice, eliminating tissue rejection issues.
What does the future hold?
With rapid advances in computer technology now emerging at an increasing rate, we can expect more changes right across the fields of physics, engineering, and materials science, the big contributors when it comes to the advancement of medical technology. This means that staying up to date with technological change has now become an essential part of any career in medicine, with even hospital porters having to make way for robots running errands, and medical students using virtual reality to gain simulated operating theater experience. These advances will save many lives and improve the quality of life for many more people, but they can only work if staff at all levels are willing to engage with them and make the effort to understand them. Medicine will never be the same again – but neither will the problems that it was always there to solve.