The pandemic has both accelerated and highlighted the need for technological advancements in healthcare, with virtual reality, blockchain and the ‘internet of things’ all becoming integrated in the modern healthcare system.
Dr Audrey P Wang, senior lecturer in digital health at the University of Sydney, says “data metrics at our fingertips” represents an exciting avenue in the future of healthcare. “[Health data] is collected and analysed sometimes in real time through technologies such as the internet of things and algorithms,” she explains.
“Many healthcare practitioners are still required to treat patients face to face, but these technologies might potentially reduce repetition, mistakes and improve critical decision making, if implemented and evaluated in the right use case.”
The Digital Health Innovation (Collaborative) Lab, which Wang leads, was awarded the Health prize at the 2021 Australian IoT Industry Awards for its COVID-19 Smart IoT Screening System Pilot at the Sydney Children’s Hospital Network.
A first for Australia, the integrated screening system acts as an eGate to screen and contact trace people before entering hospital, using a combination of COVID-19 screening questions, temperature checks and a personalised QR code for access.
Wang says technology such as this that allows sensors and systems to communicate with one another offers a streamlined way to collect health data. “These technologies will hopefully free up frontline clinical staff for direct patient care by reducing the administrative burden of collecting routine health metrics efficiently such as temperature (as in the eGate example), blood pressure etc.”
Q Bio is another company looking to advance technology around health data. The US company has developed the first clinical “digital twin” platform, called Q Bio Gemini, to capture and monitor comprehensive baseline patient health in a virtual model, which is powered by its innovative Mark I whole-body scanner. The technology combines an individual’s genetics, chemistry, anatomy, lifestyle and medical history over time, with tools that help correlate between quantitive changes and a person’s own risk factors.
The startup hopes to see its technology used as a regular part of health check-ups, where people can get a comprehensive physical and whole-body scan in 30 minutes or less and be sent a notification on their phone if there’s an issue.
Wang says while developments such as this pose intriguing concepts about the future of personalised health, they may lack the other information that is required to build a more comprehensive and complex picture of human health.
“I can see the potential in these technologies as biomarker development progresses into the future, but I am unsure if the present technology is there yet to be able to truly provide a comprehensive picture of all potential diseases a human could develop,” she says. “Still, I would love to see someone try to invent a smell detector as good as a dog’s nose – that would be a cool digital biomarker and one I could put on a pet robotic dog to alert me to diseases that might be detectable via the olfactory senses.”
3D bioprinting is another rapidly advancing technology ushering in a new era of personalised medicine. Scientia Professor Justin Gooding from the University of New South Wales is part of the team that have developed a breakthrough bioprinting system that can rapidly produce 3D cell structures.
Picking up the 2021 ANSTO Eureka Prize for Innovative Use of Technology, the device, called ‘Rastrum’, incorporates biotechnology and tissue engineering and has the potential to be a game-changer in the area of cancer research and therapeutic development.
“The vision for this treatment strategy is a very personalised approach where you would print a patient’s cancer from their own cells in a dish as a model of a person’s cancer,” explains Gooding. “Then the cancer could be exposed to different drug treatments so that the oncologists can rapidly investigate what drug cocktails the patient’s cancer responds to before they treat the patient.”
Gooding says “organs-on-a-chip” is another big trend in 3D bioprinting that is making huge impacts in healthcare. “Organoid mimics of organs as diverse as the lung, liver, heart, and the blood-brain barrier have been developed. These allow researchers to investigate all sorts of biological processes on a chip and improve treatment strategies.”