The Intertwined Nature of Technology and Healthcare

Technological advancements have taken great leaps in the past few decades, so much so that they’ve become integral components of our day-to-day lives, each new invention rendering the last one mundane. It has morphed into a driving force behind sectors like healthcare, resulting in an immense increase in much-needed innovation. A study conducted in 2013 revealed that of the entirety of the world’s population, only 1 in 20 people experienced no ailments (4.3%) while a third of the population suffered from more than five health issues (2.3 billion people).  Two technological innovations that have changed the healthcare industry in their own respective ways, that I found especially intriguing, are bionic prosthetics and surgical robots. 

Bionic Prosthetics

Figure 2: The hand automatically senses when any held item is slipping and tightens its grip. It can grip with the force of 140 Newtons and each finger can lift up to 25kg. It takes just half a second to fully open or close the 500g bebionic3. (credit: Sun Lee) [Source]

Prosthetics have come a long way from their origins as contraptions of metal and wood. Myoelectric prosthetics are controlled by electrical impulses generated by muscles but are mostly reserved for the upper limbs. The brain sends electrical signals to the muscles in order to stimulate their contraction or relaxation. The prosthetics are worn on residual limbs (amputated limbs) such that the electrodes can read these electrical impulses. The sensors then proceed to relay the information to a controller, which in turn translates the information into commands for the motors, in order to move the joints. By varying the muscle intensity, the strength and speed of movements can be controlled.

                In the event that the residual limb has suffered from muscle or nerve damage, the electrodes can be placed on the back or the chest in order to control the prosthetic limbs. In some cases, hybrid prosthetics are used; they are essentially body-powered prosthetics (harness and cable system) combined with myoelectric components. Electrical prosthetics are those that utilise touchpads, joysticks or similar apparatuses to control the residual limbs.

Figure 3: targeted muscle reinnervation surgery [source]

Alongside myoelectric prosthetics, surgeries can be performed to further empower the amputee. Targeted Muscle Reinnervation (TMR) surgery is performed on upper residual limbs, wherein, nerves missing from the residual limb are reattached into the tissue. As a result of this, the amputee can feel the sensation of touch when they use their myoelectric limbs. In order to utilise myoelectric prosthetics for the limbs in an intuitive manner, a 15-minute operation utilising the Implanted Myoelectric Sensor Technology (IMES) is conducted, and sensors are implanted into the tissue via 1cm incisions.

While these surgical techniques are still being perfected, former limitations of the myoelectric prosthetics have become much more manageable. With the advent of 3D printed prosthetics, the arms have become cheaper and lightweight, allowing the technology to reach the masses. However, since the limbs are battery-powered, they are not durable or waterproof.   

Surgical Robots

Robotic surgery is not a farfetched concept that is yet to come into fruition – it was first implemented as far back as 1983 (six years before the World Wide Web was even invented). The robot was monikered ‘Arthrobot’ and is considered the world’s first surgical robot. Arthrobot aided in orthopaedic surgery by positioning and manipulating the patients’ legs, via voice command, after being strapped in. This led to an onslaught of surgical robots, each serving a different purpose. One functioned as an operating assistant by handing the surgeon surgical instruments, using voice command. Others took the form of robotic arms, aiding in eye surgeries and orienting needles during CT guided biopsies.

Figure 4: surgical robot [source]

Over time, surgical robots have become far more precise and have been used for complex and high-stake surgeries. Currently, the most common form of surgical robots comprises of mechanical arms containing surgical instruments, and a camera arm. The surgeon controls the arms with the help of a console present in the operating room, which provides the surgeon with a stereoscopic (three-dimensional) high definition view of the patient, via the monitor.

The robots have been found to be beneficial to surgeons who possess adequate training, as they increase precision, control and flexibility; the patient is especially benefitted since they are provided with minimally invasive surgery, a quicker recovery, smaller scars and fewer possibilities of complications (like infections), blood loss and pain.

As of now, surgical robots are still tools, like any other, that surgeons use to perform the surgery. While surgical robots aren’t out to get anyone’s job yet, there are still elements of automation integrated into them. They’re useful in smoothing out hand tremors and drawing out ‘no-fly zones’ in order to prevent damage to certain nerves or organs.

What Lays Ahead

The technological advancements, of course, are not limited to bionic prosthetics or surgical robots. By merging the realms of healthcare and technology together, the current shortcomings in the healthcare sector can be methodically broken down. There are a plethora of other innovations currently undergoing development.

For instance, robots in the medical field aren’t just limited to surgical assistance. The ‘RP-VITA Remote Presence Robot’ is an autonomous medical robot that can patrol hospital hallways without human intervention and help doctors carry out routine check-ups on patients using an iPad interface, and manage charts and vital signs.

Figure 5: Bioprinting research from the lab of Rice University bioengineer Jordan Miller featured a visually stunning proof-of-principle — a scale-model of a lung-mimicking air sac with airways and blood vessels that never touch yet still provide oxygen to red blood cells. (Photo by Jordan Miller/Rice University) [source]

The use of artificial organs instead of human organs for transplantation is also being studied. Synthetic organelles, blood vessels and lab-grown skin, amongst other things, have already been successfully produced. Researchers at RICE University published a paper this year, describing how they created a model of the human lung that can oxygenate blood using a 3D bioprinter. 

                The limitless nature of scientific innovation paints a picture of an exhilarating period for technological inventions and discoveries up ahead. While research and development are inherently expensive, and more often than not prototypes do not reach the masses, the advent of technology like 3D printing allows for innovation to be considered at a much more approachable level. At the end of the day, science and technology work to better the lives of humans and, in turn, to elevate humanity.

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