Over the past two decades, we’ve done much to improve the effectiveness of medical tests but the latest trends are moving in a slightly different direction than they were before. In the not-so-old old days, after a rigorous testing, much of a doctor’s expertise on the patient’s overall condition and the following diagnosis was still more or less “hunch-based”.
Today “practicing medicine” first of all means fully relying on the testing process (for liability reasons, in no small terms). Thus, the future of medical testing is closely linked to the ubiquity and accessibility of technologies, which will allow for the most thorough testing and analyses followed by the most exact diagnosis possible.
If we’re able to do that, such an approach may change the entire health care model. This transformation may need interim solutions that would have to be tightly integrated with the future early diagnostics methodologies and the workflow of emergency services. The future testing technologies would have to be available on a whim, the test results are going to appear as though they’d been produced with lightning speed out of thin air with little or no help of any kind of equipment…
This is definitely a challenge, especially if we take into account how modern medical techniques and tests are diversified. To make a definitive progress, it will be necessary to combine several approaches, including new technological solutions, changes in medical and pre-medical practices. Maybe, even some behavioral changes in patients because the best test is the one that is taken before a person has an urgent need for medical help.
Point of care analysis
One of the long-awaited changes in medical testing is to shorten the distance between the testing facility and a patient. While typical emergency equipment is tuned to perform some basic measuring operations, most of the precise testing still has to be done at a hospital. This means lost time and delayed treatment. The solution is to develop and manufacture handheld versions of laboratory equipment to perform tests at the point of care and as early as possible. This can be a daunting task: many analyses require sophisticated chemistry paraphernalia and significant processing resources. However, the advancements in modern electronics make the quest for reliable and precise handheld testing kit attainable in many areas. Field blood analyzing, for instance. One very promising device is called the HemoPalm Handheld Blood Analyzer, it was developed by a ChroMedX Corp., an auspicious medical technology startup out of Toronto, Canada. This disposable cartridge-based portable analyzer can do something impossible to even imagine until very recently: perform full CO-oximetry as well as analyze blood gasses and electrolytes. It can work with a single drop of blood from a finger prick, so it’s not even necessary to get an arterial sample ‒ a true lifesaver in some emergencies.
New testing platforms
Medical testing can and should be performed before the actual doctor-patient conference. This may not be applicable for acute cases and field conditions, but the importance of early testing cannot be overestimated for prenatal patients and those suffering from chronic diseases. The recent years have brought a very powerful tool that is irreplaceable for these people ‒ a smartphone, the platform for use with specialized add-ons, applications and portable OEM and aftermarket equipment. We’ve already had a chance to express our admiration for AliveCor Kardia Mobile solution for electroencephalography, the compact and inexpensive pad with finger sensors. Here’s one other piece of modern tech that took our breath away ‒ the CliniCloud home medical kit that can also be connected to a smartphone.
In some cases, even the built-in smartphone functions alone are sufficient enough to perform a medical test, be it a high-definition camera or precise accelerometers or even an iris scanner, which can be found in such handsets as Vivo X5Pro, Alcatel Idol 3, the venerable LG G5 and a few others.
This spring Verily, the health wing of the Alphabet company, unveils an interesting development in smartwatches. This humble looking device is oriented not towards the gadget-obsessed crowd but rather targets health care researchers and professionals. The Verily Study Watch’s primary function is to collect and securely store health data to be uploaded later for detailed analysis. The exact set of functions is yet to be released but the developer announced that the device was designed to work with signals from sensors, which collect data relevant to cardiovascular and musculoskeletal system diseases.
It’s not unusual for a conventional smartwatch to have the ability to monitor wearer’s pulse rate or measure the level of physical activity throughout the day. But this device for medical professionals supports specialized sensors (ECG for example). In addition, it has a long working time (up to one week between charges) and it primarily focuses on high reliability and encryption of medical information. Stored data is uploaded and processed via the Verily cloud.
In some cases, assessing the medical condition can be difficult. The bandaged wound is one of many examples: you just can not know for sure, what is going on beneath the surface of a bandage. In order to tend to the wound, a nurse needs to remove the bandage first, which doesn’t promote healing. Then redress the wound all over again. Repeat in a day or two. A pure time consuming and painful nightmare!
This might seem like an insoluble problem, but Swansea University is already testing the so-called “smart bandages”. Their name speaks for itself: these dressings do not need to be removed to find out what is going on underneath the surface ‒ the smart component in the dressing assesses the state of the wound and reports it wirelessly via microscopic sensors right to the patient’s smartphone.
$100 DNA sequencing
The DNA sequencing is the ultimate medical testing. This procedure can give doctors a list of patient’s genetic complications and possible diseases while the future… well, patient is still in the womb. The major obstacle, however, is the cost dictated by the complexity of the procedure. Today the technology behind the DNA sequencing is not about making the equipment handheld or jamming it into a smartphone. The most we can count on today is a guarantee that the procedure can be carried out within a few hours after taking the sample, and the cost will not bankrupt an entire family. And it’s safe to say that a $100 or less already buys you (in the selected markers) a full genome map.
However, the research continues. A number of startups are developing, or already offering machines that can decode exome ‒ a part of the genome that contains information useful in the context of a particular disease. Other companies aim for the whole genome sequencing, with at least one, San Diego-based Illumina, that is already fostering a breakthrough to reduce the price of a single test to $100.