The digital doctor will see you now…

Let’s say you have the misfortune of having a heart attack. Before you feel any pain, your smartphone’s automated scan of your body notices your heart straining, alerting emergency services that arrive just as you go into cardiac arrest.

By the time you arrive at the hospital, your personal health record, including data collected over the past few minutes, is uploaded to your doctor’s tablet.

An RFID bracelet is slapped onto your wrist for identification, but it also monitors your vital signs. You’re instantly scanned and the resulting 3D image is sent to an autonomous robot surgeon that implants a wireless defibrillator via a tiny incision, without having to crack open your ribcage.

Given the processing power at hand in other parts of our lives, it’s perhaps surprising that medicine remains relatively low-tech

You’re sent home with chip-embedded antibiotics and a robot to help you get around. Check-ups are held in your living room via a high-definition teleconference, while your blood pressure is monitored by a wireless patch that uploads data directly to your personal health record, which is analysed by algorithms looking for patterns that could suggest you’re not recovering properly.

And if all that doesn’t prevent another heart attack, your wireless defibrillator automatically kicks in the next time you suffer a cardiac arrest, saving your life on the spot.

While that entire scenario is a vision of the future, bits and pieces are available today, as the forces at work in the rest of the technology industry – such as shrinking chip dies, cloud computing and ubiquitous connectivity – are set to transform medicine.

Given the processing power at hand in other parts of our lives, it’s perhaps surprising that medicine remains relatively low-tech – in this feature, we reveal how this is quickly changing, and why.

High-definition surgery

Robots large and small are already offering a helping hand – or helping laser – to hospitals, especially in operating theatres. The robot of the moment is Da Vinci, a surgical assistant with three robotic arms for instruments and a fourth for a high-definition, 3D camera.

DA VINCI surgeon

The surgeon manipulates the arms from a console next to the operating table, like an advanced, life-threatening game of Operation.

The computer senses even the smallest movement of the surgeon’s hands on the controls, and filters out trembling. This improves precision by such a scale that operations that once required incisions up to 100mm in length are now cut to 12mm, significantly reducing the recovery time of a patient, and therefore the time taken to get them out of an expensive hospital bed and back home.

Some surgical robots eliminate cuts altogether. The Master and Slave Transluminal Endoscopic Robot (or MASTER to his medical friends) is designed to remove tumours from the stomach by entering the patient through the mouth; nauseating as that sounds, it’s better than cutting open the patient.

Carnegie Mellon University, meanwhile, is working on HeartLander, a miniature mobile robot “designed to facilitate minimally invasive therapy to the surface of the beating heart”. The robot enters through an incision and sits on the surface of the heart, from where it “autonomously navigates to the specified location” to do its work.

Helper robots

Not all robots are surgeons, and many hospitals already use them to perform menial tasks, while so-called Nursebots are sent home with patients. IDC analyst Jan Duffy says helper robots are already common in Nordic hospitals.

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