Medical drones and robot surgeons: Visions of the medical futurist

Profound digital technology changes are on the way in every sector, and I expect that within 10 years, healthcare systems will be unrecognizable.

Digital technologies are taking huge leaps towards revolutionizing everything from global economies to the energy sector and transportation systems. We are way behind in understanding its true potential and impact on us as individuals, but that won’t stand in the way of innovation.

The most powerful innovations from the medical field

Robots that improve accuracy and save time. Blood tests can be pretty scary, especially when it takes a few attempts to find a vein. But what if technology – specifically robots like Veebot – could reduce the whole process to about a minute with the accuracy of an experienced human phlebotomist? In the future it is going to be normal for repetitive tasks such as blood-drawing to be done by technology, giving healthcare professional much needed time back.

Surgical robots. Surgical robots have the potential to completely change surgery as we know it today. The industry is about to boom: by 2020, surgical robotics sales are expected to almost double to $6.4 billion. The example of the da Vinci surgical robot system shows that the device does not replace surgeons, but rather extends their capabilities by enabling surgeons to operate with enhanced vision and precision. At first, the thought is quite daunting, but considering the development trends, surgical robots improve accuracy while under the control of human surgeons the whole time!

Telemedical robots will diagnose patients in the desert. The World Health Organization estimates a worldwide shortage of around 4.3 million physicians, nurses and allied health workers. Meanwhile, demand for healthcare services is increasing: civilizational diseases are on the rise, aging societies need more and more care. We will never be able to train as many doctors as needed, so robots with telemedical devices will certainly appear in more and more clinics.

For example, InTouch Health is a pioneer in the field. Through its network, patients in remote areas, or people who are not able to travel, have access to high-quality emergency consultations for stroke, cardiovascular and burn services at the exact time they need it.

VR/AR is right around the corner. Were you also swept away by the Pokémon Go craze last summer? Then you know exactly, how it feels like to see a mixture of the real and the virtual simultaneously. In the field of medicine, augmented reality (AR) could be ground-breaking, from assisting surgeons in the operating room to revolutionizing the study of anatomy.

Virtual reality (VR) has also been debuted in several medical fields. For example, Brennan Spiegel and his team at the Cedars-Sinai hospital in LA introduced VR worlds to their patients to help them release stress and reduce pain. With special goggles, patients could visit amazing landscapes in Iceland, paint in an art studio or swim with whales in the ocean.

Walk with exoskeletons. Robotic structures can help humans move around and lift huge weights. They can also let paralyzed people walk again. For example, an Ekso Bionics suit helped Matt Ficarra, paralyzed from the chest down, walk down the aisle on his wedding day! How amazing is that? But when we start seeing people walking or even running around in them, we will be surprised how much they will appear as costumes from The Matrix trilogy. No matter how thin exoskeletons become, they will take some getting used to.

Digital tattoos. The wearable market is booming and shows no sign of slowing down. One trend suggests that we are heading towards tiny digital tattoos measuring vital health parameters. The company, MC10 makes microchips that can measure numerous vital signs simultaneously. A biostamp chip called Checklight was added to a helmet so it could detect if someone sustained a head injury after a collision. The thought of a chip gathering all kinds of data about you is quite jarring and would need to overcome significant privacy issues first. But this is why we have to be careful and prepare for it with an adequate response!

Medical drones. In an emergency, help can never be too soon, but bad road conditions can cause life threatening delays. Drones could deliver medical equipment such as semi-automatic defibrillators to the required GPS location in seconds. Zipline International, a Silicon Valley start-up is using drones to deliver medicine and blood to patients in Rwanda, and it plans to expand to other countries soon.

Recently, the world’s largest shipping company, UPS, completed a test delivery of medical supplies via unmanned aircraft from to Children’s Island, located about three miles off the Atlantic coast and unreachable by car. We could soon become accustomed to the sight of drones carrying bags of medical equipment!

Sequence your genome in your living room. Patients have been able to order genome tests online with 23andme, Navigenics or Pathway Genomics since the early 2000s. The basic idea is that anyone should be able to order a test from home, learn their predisposition to certain medical conditions and what lifestyle choices they should make to avoid them. I have had several genetic tests and even as a researcher trained in genomics, I was nervous when the results arrived. But the more we learn about our genetic code the more we can do about prevention. So, no matter how scary it sounds, I encourage you to order a genome test – and get to know your body from a completely different perspective!

Healthcare is going through a revolution and although these predictions seem like science fiction, they are becoming ready as we speak. The more we prepare today either as patients or caregivers, the more we will be able to get out of using technologies in medicine and healthcare.


Dr. Bertalan Mesko, PhD

About the author

Dr. Bertalan Mesko, PhD

Dr. Bertalan Mesko, PhD is the Medical Futurist, and healthcare keynote speaker. A geek physician with a PhD in genomics and Amazon Top 100 author, he envisions the impact of digital health technologies on the future of healthcare, and helps patients, doctors, government regulators and companies make it a reality. He is an avid health tracker. With 500+ presentations under his belt, including courses at Harvard, Stanford and Yale Universities, Singularity University, and organizations including the 10 biggest pharmaceutical companies, he is one of the top voices globally in healthcare technology. Dr. Mesko was featured by dozens of top publications, including CNN, WIRED, National Geographic, Forbes, TIME magazine, BBC, and the New York Times. His popular blog has had more than 5 million readers, and he is one of LinkedIn’s Top Voices in Healthcare. He is a member of Mensa International and has been selected by the Huffington Post as one of the 30 biotech thinkers with the biggest global impact. He is a member of the "Committee on Future Research" of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. He received an MD and PhD in genomics from the University of Debrecen, Medical School and Health Science Center.


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