Technology in healthcare is a critical player in the future of the industry. Just as technologies such as computers, mobile phones, 3D printing, big data and cloud computing have transformed most aspects of our lives over the past few decades, so they will transform healthcare in years to come. This revolution is a result of the convergence of clever new technologies with an increasingly informed patient population. As this combination matures, we will see dramatic improvements in healthcare delivery.
However, new technologies also bring new challenges for healthcare providers, and it’s important to question the assumption that every human problem has a digital solution. Our task is to look at new technology in healthcare with a curious eye and a critical mind. How can it improve patient experience and what do we need to monitor to ensure better quality care outcomes?
For anyone in the healthcare industry in 2021, understanding digital health technology in Australia will be invaluable for your career and community. This is especially true for nurses, whose commitment to patient care drives them to seek new solutions.
Developments in healthcare technology
Here are 11 of the biggest developments in eHealth in Australia:
1. Trackers and sensors
From step counters to heart monitors, personal medical information is getting easier to collect. Real-time and authentic data allow for better diagnosis and evidence-based treatment over time.
AI (Artificial Intelligence) chips can track blood glucose levels in real-time and send messages to an automated drip administering either glucose or insulin depending on the readings. This device eliminates the need for patients to undergo frequent blood tests and removes the wait for laboratory readings.
Trackers and sensors also help professionals intervene early in emergencies. Fall monitors are already widely in use by many older people living alone or in care. This is leading to substantial improvements in the quality of life and health outcomes of people vulnerable to falls.
Tracking devices can also monitor heart arrhythmias and breathing problems, preventing fatal outcomes in high-risk patients.
2. Augmented reality
Augmented Reality (AR) is having extraordinary results for medicine. Unlike virtual reality (VR), the goal of AR is to supplement rather than replace the user’s sensory experience. This allows for data updates that are much closer to real-time.
AR can give surgeons unprecedented access to the inner workings of a person’s body, making complex surgeries safer to perform. By helping a practitioner to synthesise multiple pieces of information at once, AR can reduce the scope for miscommunication and mistakes.
3. Virtual reality
VR can also play a role in training healthcare professionals and improving patient outcomes. The best simulations elicit the same psychological responses as real-life experiences. These reality-enhanced surgical simulators provide better preparation for high-stakes operations than traditional methods such as cadaver labs or manikin exercises.
The same is true of healthcare in general. VR is an excellent method for preparing a patient for surgery. It can also be used to educate patients on drug side effects or make procedures like a colonoscopy less frightening than they are in reality.
Recent developments in natural language processing (NLP) and machine learning (ML) have made it possible for chatbots to help healthcare providers in many ways.
Chatbots can tap into large databases and provide useful insights in a conversational format. They can help people schedule clinical appointments and answer patient questions about symptoms, nutrition facts, and more. For example, in 2020, Whatsapp joined forces with the World Health Organization (WHO) to provide COVID-19 information via a chatbot.
Chatbots are scalable. They can handle all the frequently asked questions and refer more difficult queries to a nurse, doctor, or another health professional. This saves healthcare providers money and allows nurses and doctors to focus on where they are most needed.
Chatbots can also handle health insurance inquiries, act as a diagnosis tool, and provide mental health support. For example, chatbots already provide cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) for patients with depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and anxiety. They are also helping people with autism to improve their social and job interview skills.
5. Better medical records
One of the most dramatic ways technology in healthcare is having an impact: improving the collection and transfer of medical data. Consolidated electronic health records make diagnosis more rapid, treatment more consistent and mistakes easier to avoid. We’re already accustomed to the early stages of this. For instance, the national immunisation database gives nurses access to invaluable information and is being used to isolate and eliminate diseases. Data networks are especially useful for regional and remote communities that may have less access to health infrastructure.
However, the privacy and security of some eHealth measures are still up for debate. Some industry professionals have voiced their concerns with the Australian Government’s MyHealth database, which they say does not do enough to protect patients against warrantless access to their personal data by police and commercial third parties. New bipartisan encryption laws may also jeopardise the safety of Australian data. So, while these systems have exciting potential, the way they are rolled out could have huge ramifications. Often, as we have seen throughout history, it’s been nurses who have been on the front line advocating for the safety and autonomy of patients.
6. More effective scheduling and staffing
Hospitals can be chaotic environments, but digital technology can help nurses organise their shifts and patient interactions more strategically. Programs like those created by GE Healthcare Centricity, Cerner Clairvia and registered nurse Joe Cavillo, are tailored to meet the specific challenges of scheduling nurses in 24-hour, high-pressure environments. Some of these programs can even be used on a smartphone. They allow nurse managers to organise shifts in effective, efficient ways, and give nurses easy communication channels to share their needs and preferences.
7. Genome sequencing
Genome sequencing is becoming cheaper, and before long, consultations will regularly occur at the genetic level. It's important to be mindful that gene technology is likely to be misused by the powerful like many developments throughout history. But the technology is coming, regardless, and we shouldn’t let fear obstruct the ways that it can positively impact people’s lives. From understanding allergies and congenital conditions to supercharging preventative medicine, technologies like CRISPR could save countless lives.
8. 3D printing
3D printers are revolutionising healthcare. They’re already being used to create prosthetics at a higher quality and cheaper price than was previously imaginable.
With 3D printing, each implant can be designed, bespoke, for each patient’s body. Even bones have been 3D printed. In the Netherlands, surgeons custom-printed a plastic replica to replace the top section of a woman’s skull. The technology is also easy to decentralise and reproduce, meaning innovations can be rolled out rapidly. The possibilities are seemingly endless.
9. Faster drug development
The research process of developing drugs is cumbersome and expensive. But when you’re trying to find a needle in a haystack, a metal detector makes a big difference. Artificial intelligence has become more and more adept at finding new and more effective medicines. Many of the breakthroughs that are taking place in areas as diverse as cancer and HIV are only made possible because of these advancements.
Robots are perfect for patients going through rehabilitation with their specific functions and aptitude to perform repetitive motor tasks. Robotics technology is also changing the nature of surgery — machines can already perform some procedures with lower risk than human surgeons. For instance, expert human radiologists and surgeons can inject tumours with anti-cancer drugs to an accuracy of a couple of millimetres. But a low-cost surgical robot designed by IRCAD can find and inject tumours with a precision of a tenth of a millimetre. As autonomous units like these become more effective and cheaper, they will revolutionise hospital and medical care all over the world.
Technology in healthcare is also helping to close the gap between urban and rural access to medical services. Regional and rural populations in Australia have always suffered because of their distance from healthcare facilities and specialists. But faster internet connections via NBN technology has made it increasingly possible for healthcare professionals, including specialists, to consult via video calls. Instead of attending clinical appointments or surgical follow-ups at a metropolitan hospital, patient care can be delivered in the patient's home.
Telehealth has also been used recently for patients in both rural and urban settings to avoid face-to-face contact and lessen the risk of COVID-19 transmission.
With advancements in telemedicine also comes the opportunity for patients to participate more meaningfully in monitoring their conditions and treatment.
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