The future of healthcare affects us all. Both the treatments currently on offer and the industries and organizations that support and develop them are evolving. Perhaps not always at a rate conducive with positive mass health outcomes (especially looking at cancer rates, diseases of lifestyle and the the obesity crisis), there is significant progress being made. In this article, we’re going to take a look at how healthcare treatments and organizations are set to change in the not so distant future.
Communication and preventative maintenance
How we approach the overall approach of our healthcare services allied to the communication systems that facilitate access to healthcare are improving all the time, but is it fast enough?
Where we are
Right now, the process that most of us are familiar with is a lengthy and often frustrating one. When a loved one or we fall ill, we have to make an appointment with a family doctor or GP (general practitioner). They might refer us to a hospital specialist for more diagnosis, scans or blood work followed by the inevitable wait as those results are considered and translated. None of it feels very 21st century; it’s a band-aid philosophy of healthcare; putting plasters onto symptoms as they arise rather than taking a preventative maintenance approach.
In order for the existing general model of healthcare to evolve, we expect a move towards a more connected system that offers a 24/7 connection between a patient and the requisite treatments and specialists. Moving away from treating symptoms as they arise and towards preventing the conditions from erupting in the first place with consistent monitoring.
We are all familiar with the increased use of devices that allow us to monitor our activities. Wrist-worn devices allied to smartphones mean that for most people a walk or a run is now measured in steps, calories burned, and a motivational badge to congratulate us on having moved every hour for the last 9 hours. This motivational awareness is the first step to a more connected view of healthcare.
As devices are getting more and more sophisticated we can now measure our resting heart rate, our blood oxygen levels, our sleep quality, and a myriad other markers that are clear indications of our current health and fitness levels. While perhaps not quite as advanced as gadgets found in a technician’s lab, the technology right now is good enough to motivate us to move more, to eat well, sleep more, and take more responsibility for our wellness.
These gamified environments also raise important flags that might show us when something might need attention, such as an abnormal heart rate, a drop in blood pressure, or in our blood oxygen levels (such as sleep apnea might present with). The more pro-active care we can take of ourselves the more burden is taken off the healthcare systems and the more targeted and personalized our healthcare systems and treatments can become.
With these devices and the data they provide in mind, we can easily envisage a healthcare system not too far way that allows physicians remote access to our data. Perhaps sophisticated algorithms and learning machines that can gather data from all of our connected health monitoring devices can make recommendations for treatment or attention in real-time. Monitoring and responding to the health of a nation in this way will mean contextually informed real-time diagnosis of potential issues before they can turn into chronic illness. The holy grail is a healthcare system that works to maintain wellness rather than simply reacting to it when it’s too late, and we are definitely on the path to this, perhaps in as little as ten years.
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Understanding how much damage is being done by a largely preventable disease and what amazing advances are underway to help us eliminate diabetes for good.
Where we are now
Diabetes is a global killer of epidemic proportions. Between 1980 and 2014, the prevalence of diabetes rose from 4.4% to 8.5% or from 108 million cases to 422 million cases; albeit predominantly in lower-income countries where poor nutrition and access to good nutritional advice can be a problem. It’s not just a third world problem though and it’s currently the 7th leading cause of death in the United States; in 2015, 252,806 death certificates listed diabetes as an underlying or contributing cause of death.
Type 1 diabetes affects around 10% of total diabetes sufferers and is a condition caused by an individual’s immune system attacking their own pancreas. The pancreas’ job is to produce various enzymes and hormones that are used in the digestive process and also for making insulin and moderating levels of glucose in the blood. Type 1’s days are numbered though, as scientists are close to deploying an artificial pancreas designed to be worn outside the body and bypassing the faulty one. It will work in pretty much the same way as the original version, monitoring blood glucose levels and injecting the just the right amount of insulin intravenously into the system accordingly. They should be regularly in use with the next ten years or so.
Type 2 Diabetes is a far bigger killer, affecting around 90% of all people living with diabetes. Type 2 Diabetes happens when the body finally gives in responding to insulin and so can no longer regulate the amount of glucose in the blood. Type 2 diabetes is entirely a lifestyle disease. Our bodies evolved predominantly during times of feast or famine and our neurological reward systems light up around high sugar and fat-based meals.
In these abundant times of supermarkets and fast food outlets, we are nowhere near famine most of the time, but our pre-disposition to feast has not yet caught up. The good news is that with focused attention on diet and nutrition, Type 2 Diabetes can be reversed. Awareness campaigns and better lifestyle choices can help people to recover from this condition.
There have also been huge advances in our understanding of how bariatric surgery (weight loss surgery) affects gut hormones and in turn, reverses diabetes. With a better understanding of these processes, scientists should be able to replicate this success without the need for actual surgery.
Cancer is typically treated with chemo or radiation therapy, sometimes surgery and various hormonal and targeted therapies, but what does the future of cancer treatment look like?
Where we are now
Forty years ago, you would have had a 1 in 4 chance of beating cancer; today you have closer to a 1 in 2 chance of surviving and the odds are improving all the time. The truth about cancer is that it is not just a single disease but rather hundreds of diseases of different parts of the body that operate and affect us in different ways, this means that treating each cancer is a very specific process rather than finding one holy grail cure.
The cutting edge of cancer treatment at the moment is in teaching our own immune systems to target and destroy cancerous cells. Out of the box, our immune systems don’t know when we have cancer as it’s undetectable, essentially invisible to our immune system. With the help immunotherapy drugs we are beginning to trigger the body’s defense systems by helping them to self diagnose. Even at such an early stage of these new treatments we’re seeing huge success and hopefully we’ll see significant results in the coming years.
As well as improving the body’s ability to detect cancer, we are seeing huge improvements in our ability to detect early signs of cancer in the blood. Early detection makes all forms of treatment far more effective, boosting survival rates dramatically.
Radiation therapy is also becoming way more efficient, previously an overly invasive way of using radiation to kill cancer cells, we are seeing new technologies emerging that can hone the technique and become significantly better at targeting cancer cells (while limiting the damage done to healthy cells, the collateral damage of cancer treatment).
Another hopeful area of exploration is in personalized treatment. As we get better at understanding the DNA of both the tumor cells and the surrounding healthy cells of an individual we will become more adept at creating more effective treatments designed for each patient rather than a one size fits all approach.
We are only just beginning to understand the fascinating world of our microbiomes; the gut bacteria that dwell within our bodies and work with us, for the most part, to keep us healthy and strong. There are strong connections between healthy gut bacteria and a healthy immune system and this is the key to an exciting new strategy. Tumor cells are often invisible to our immune systems and (alongside the immunotherapy drugs) scientists have created a vaccine based on tumor-mimicking molecules in our bodies that instructs our immune systems to attack the cancerous cells.
There are lots of reasons to be hopeful for the future of cancer treatment as many different therapies are attacking the many different types of cancer on a variety of fronts leading to far higher survival rates now, and in the future.