As a child, I often watched science fiction movies and television shows wondering how much would become reality in my lifetime. From space travel in Buck Rogers and Star Trek to time travel in Back to the Future, I often imagined growing up in a world where the impossible became probable. Bionics and the repair of human tissues was captivating and the Six Million Dollar Man became a hit series.
Now, much of what was thought to be science fiction is becoming a reality in today’s world. No other discipline has seen science fiction become reality and produce human impact as readily as the medicine and the treatment of human disease.
Medicine is becoming increasingly electronic and patients of all ages are more consistently wired through the use of the Internet, mobile devices and mobile applications for health. Patients are able to track health status, blood pressure, blood glucose and other indicators via their smartphones. This ability to track and transmit data is important to streamlining care and improving the efficiency of the doctor patient interaction. Hospitalizations are prevented through early intervention when physicians and patients have access to data while the patient is still an outpatient. For example, many implantable cardioverter defibrillators (ICDs) and pacemakers have diagnostic sensors that can transmit important information to clinicians and allow for the outpatient adjustments of medication before the patient reaches the point where hospitalization is necessary for congestive heart failure and other cardiovascular diseases.
Now, researchers are beginning to develop small, unobtrusive diagnostic tools that have the potential to not only transmit health status but also deliver therapy. In the Wall Street Journal, Robert Lee Holtz reports on implants that are as thin as tattoos that are able to collect, process and respond to health data. Even more impressive is the fact that in early clinical trials, some of these sensors are able to deliver medications and therapies in response to the collected biologic information. The biophysics of personalized medicine is upon us — experiments are being conducted in laboratories all over the country in order to design miniature, accurate, responsive sensors that can easily integrate with the body and dissolve when no longer needed.
In fact, as reported in the Journal, current experiments include using digital technology sensors on eyes for glaucoma, wrapping around hearts in need of a pacemaker and implants that control pain after surgery. These types of technologies, while potentially years away from routine human use, represent a major shift in the way in which doctors are able to care for patients. We are becoming increasingly web savvy: at all ages and in all demographics.
As a society, we must accept more individual accountability and responsibility for our own healthcare in order to help contain costs. New developments such as implantable sensors and drug delivery systems may help doctors treat more diseases remotely and avoid costly hospitalizations. For patients, increased education, increased self awareness and the ability to receive real time feedback from therapies may improve their ability to make lifestyle adjustments and improve their own health status.
As I have said many times, engaged patients enjoy improved outcomes. New technologies such as tiny implantable sensors and drug delivery systems will allow patients to connect like never before. I look forward to a future where devices are individualized and personalized for each patient’s particular disease process and needs. I believe that it will not only be important for physicians to be able to interact with the biologic data but also for patients to receive and interpret this information via a smartphone, computer, tablet or other mobile device in order to make adjustments and prevent complications or exacerbations of disease.
Although we don’t have the Six Million Dollar Man with us, we do have the technology to make all of us better, stronger and healthier. The age of digital medicine is here: We must embrace these new technologies and promote their development and deployment in the marketplace in order to improve the lives of our patients today.
Kevin R. Campbell is a cardiac electrophysiologist who blogs at his self-titled site, Dr. Kevin R. Campbell, MD.