“Tele” refers to distance, in the Greek language. “Mederi” means to heal, in the Latin language. Therefore, Telemedicine indicates ‘healing from a distance’. Healthcare technologies serve to bring this about and have done so, during the ongoing pandemic. In fact, the success of telehealth is inspiring several innovative inventors to come up with greater technological marvels for the future!
Several devices/gadgets and machines are already in vogue across the globe. Many of you may be aware of them too. However, some unique ‘medical assistants’ have come into play during COVID-19, albeit in an infancy stage. They should become quite popular in the future because they link to a vital precautionary measure – social distancing.
Paradoxically, the medical fraternity has suffered the most during this pandemic, simply for being compassionate and caring! Every country has reported numerous deaths within this fraternity, over the last year or so. This is because doctors, nurses, technicians, etc., can only treat patients by remaining in ‘close touch’. The only way to avoid this is by going for Robotics in a big way.
True, the world has been using robots for quite some time now, albeit for diverse small, and big, tasks. However, they have not been very popular with the healthcare industry thus far. Now the pandemic has forced the industry to rethink. It is exploring all the different ways in which robots may prove invaluable to healthcare institutions currently, and in the future.
For example, nurses welcome the assistance of Care Robots. These robots can monitor the vitals (temperature, blood pressure, respiratory rate, pulse, and oxygen saturation) of patients, taking blood samples, etc. They can maintain a hygienic environment, such that patients do not succumb to infections. When these automated machines take over the mundane tasks, nurses get more time to pay attention to individualized treatment plans for their respective patients. Technology is such that it can even make robots acquire ‘human’ faces and manners, such that patients feel comfortable with them!
Hospital robots are marvellous for handling delivery services. For instance, they take charge of transferring laboratory specimens, medications, protective gear, food, sensitive material, fresh linens, etc., from one place to another within the establishment. Such robots have onboard sensors and in-built maps, which help them to navigate corridors, staircases, elevators, and automatic doors, with ease. Some robots know how to disinfect the internal and external surroundings of hospitals.
Video robots reside within patients’ rooms. They convey 3D images about each patient’s progress to doctors’ offices. Then again, robots are great for helping in surgical tasks, especially in making precise incisions, dealing with orthopedic replacements, etc.
The latest attempt in the field of Robotics is to create Decontamination robots, possessing ultraviolet rays and 3D imaging technology, to destroy COVID-19 pathogens. Experts at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, are striving to make this experiment a success.
They refer to electronic devices. Medical practitioners use them to gain relevant medical information about their patients, albeit from a distance. You may allow technical experts to adhere these devices to your skin, or even tattoo on to it. Some devices go directly (implant) into your body. Then again, there are wearables that can remain attached to various fabrics and clothing accessories. Finally, you can take recourse to hands-free wearables.
All these wearable devices possess various types of sensors. They keep track of what is happening within the concerned patient’s body, 24 x 7. They relay this information to the monitoring healthcare provider via the Internet. All this has become possible, thanks to the invention of miniature microprocessors, the development of mobile networks that connect with tremendous speed, and the growing popularity of IoT (Internet of Things) technology.
An example of Wearables is donning smart clothes that are both, washable and comfortable. However, smart does not refer to fashionable, elegant, chic, or refined. The term refers to attire that possesses in-built sensors. These sensors keep track of the individual’s vitals, quantity and quality of sleep, stress levels, pumping of heart, day-to-day activity levels, etc. These clothes include both, innerwear, and outerwear. However, such clothes have not yet entered the marketplace. Skiin, the company that is handling these special clothes, is waiting for approval from the concerned authorities.
Similarly, Respira Sense (PMD Solutions) refers to a wearable that monitors respiratory health. This device is already in use. Medical professionals can reach patients in time, especially when they show signs of worsening pneumonia, respiratory compromise, etc. Another one is Lief Rx (Lief Therapeutics), which senses fluctuations in the heart rate of a patient prone to high levels of stress/anxiety.
The healthcare industry is now tackling wearables that may help in diagnosing signs of COVID-19, monitoring of quarantined patients at home, automatic transferring of patient data onto a dashboard that healthcare providers can monitor, high-quality mobile apps, etc.
If doctors are concerned about their safety, well, patients are too. They would prefer to maintain their distance from healthcare centers as much as possible! Regardless, patients often require medical information, education in hygienic practices, or advice regarding treatment. Therefore, a reliable communication pathway is a requisite for helping doctors and patients to bond in these trying times. AI (artificial intelligence) triage chatbots seem to be doing the trick quite well! Triage (from the French word, trier – to sort) refers to the sorting out of treatment methods. Triage outlines the step-by-step practices that the patient must follow, under a healthcare provider’s guidance.
Similarly, the healthcare industry also offers AI-powered clinical assistants. They are excellent language translators too, enabling people to understand everything easily. Since Microsoft oversees such chatbots, it offers adequate technical support too. In fact, cloud resources are proving wonderfully handy during this ongoing pandemic.
Video conferencing is also possible, thanks to platforms, such as Zoom, FaceTime, etc. These platforms suffice to take care of primary healthcare check-ups for suspected patients of COVID-19, as well as necessary screenings. They also serve to meet emergencies, provide advice about medications, and initiate follow-ups. Video meetings are useful for both, home-quarantined people, and hospitalized patients. They help both groups to maintain social distance. Best of all, these technologies help healthcare to reach the countryside and remote areas, across the globe. It helps that the advent of 5G networks has speeded up the dissemination of information and healthcare activities.
Certain software programs permit exchanging of medical information and using it for the betterment of the concerned patient. This is essential when the authorities transfer patients from one healthcare facility to another. In the absence of the patient’s past, and current, medical histories, no medical practitioner can provide requisite treatment.
Enhanced interoperability depends upon APIs (application program interfaces). APIs suffice to grant privacy and security to patient data. This is essential, since the data travels across diverse devices and various platforms, needing protection against hackers, spyware, and malware. APIs also aid in saving storage space. Above all, the receivers of information at either end may remain confident that it is appearing from the right source. APIs provide reliability and trustworthiness.
Another function of APIs is to help patients gain access to their own records. They are welcome to check out everything on their own. Towards this end, there is transparency regarding lab results, communication between doctor and patient, treatment methodologies, etc.
It refers to a construction system, completely under the control of a computer. Traditional techniques involve moulding, carving, or grinding, for converting raw materials into recognizable forms. In contrast, 3D Printing refers to a unique additive manufacturing method that is different from the traditional ones. It strives to settle raw materials into layers, such that the outcomes show up as three-dimensional products. The raw materials that come into play here, include ceramics, metals, and plastics. CAD (computer-aided design) drawings, or MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) images, suffice to exhibit relevant digital files. The manufacturer views the files and creates the desired products.
Guess how useful this kind of printer has proved to be during COVID-19? With a humongous shortage of respiratory devices to help patients breathe across the world, the healthcare fraternity became desperate. Their requests for help to various manufacturing companies brought surprising results. The companies came up with 3D-printed snorkelling masks to aid in ventilation. They also came up with suitable recyclable face masks for medical practitioners. Other products that came into the display, include nasopharyngeal swaps, temporary emergency shelters for isolating severely ill patients, translucent training mannequins to teach medical personnel, ventilators, etc. All this, and more, should be visible in the future since the printer provides images that give manufacturers a good idea about what a product should look like.
Thus far, 3D printers have proved tremendously useful for outlining patient’s anatomies in detail. Surgeons are finding it easier to decide where incisions should go during non-invasive operations. The images prove equally useful for conducting complicated surgeries. Similarly, 3D printers are splendid assistants for the orthopedics department. Technicians, who prepare orthopedic devices, can now create customized ones for diverse patients.
The above-mentioned are just a few examples of what digitization of healthcare promises to a disease-stricken world. With innovative manufacturers, governmental authorities, and the medical fraternity joining hands, to make the world COVID-19-free, several novel surprises are on show soon!