I love medical innovations. During my 25-year career as a radiologist, I’ve seen enormous advances in the medical imaging, including powerful new techniques to detect early breast cancer, diagnose (and help guide treatment) of strokes before permanent brain damage, and detect early heart disease.
In this column, I’d like to highlight three promising innovations that could improve health care in coming years.
1) Drones to deliver cardiac defibrillators
Researchers in Sweden showed that they could use drones to dispatch automated external defibrillators (AEDs) to patients suffering cardiac arrest faster than ambulances could arrive.
AEDs are portable devices that deliver life-saving electric shocks to patients suffering from heart rhythm problems, and are designed to be used by members of the general public. AEDs are now commonplace in schools, airport terminals, and other public venues. But if someone has a cardiac arrest in a remote area away from an AED, it can take several minutes before an ambulance arrives with defibrillation equipment. Hence, the interest in faster delivery of AEDs.
As health reporter Karen Kaplan summarizes:
For patients suffering cardiac arrest, 16 minutes saved could easily mean the difference between life and death
2) Treating heart attack patients with oxygen-producing bacteria
Stanford University cardiothoracic surgeon Dr. Joseph Woo and colleagues reported “that by injecting a type of bacteria into the hearts of anesthetized rats with cardiac disease, then using light to trigger photosynthesis, they were able to increase the flow of oxygen and improve heart function”
This idea has only been tested in rats, but preliminary results are encouraging:
A direct injection of photosynthetic bacteria — plus a little light — provided cellular life-support to the weak, blood-starved hearts of rats suffering simulated heart attacks. The bacterial jolt supplied much-needed oxygen to the gasping tissue and prevented long-term damage, Stanford researchers report this week in Science Advances . In fact, after a short recovery period the treated rodents had a 30-percent boost in heart function compared with control animals.
“In humans, an increase of this magnitude would have profound clinical implications, likely representing the difference between a healthy patient and one suffering from heart failure,” the authors conclude.
As Dr. Woo notes, “This is, as far as we know, the first time anyone has actually harnessed the equivalent of a plant cell to try to help a mammalian cell. We’re essentially creating a solar-energy-powered heart.”
3) Predicting lifespan with AI University of Adelaide researchers trained artificial intelligence “deep learning” to analyze patients’ chest CT scans, and found the AIs could predict life expectancy.
Specifically, “This computer-based analysis was able to predict which patients would die within five years, with 69% accuracy — comparable to ‘manual’ predictions by clinicians. This is the first study of its kind using medical images and artificial intelligence.”
As with other deep learning algorithms, the human researchers don’t really know how the AIs are arriving at its decisions. Only that it works:
Although this is still preliminary research, a reliable life-expectancy prediction method could also help physicians tailor treatments to individuals. If successive scans show that a treatment is increasing a patient’s life expectancy score, they’ll know to maintain the course, whereas if scans show a patient’s life expectancy decreasing, they’ll know to alter the treatment plan.
(Pessimists might note that such technologies could also facilitate government health systems’ ability to restrict care to patients with low life expectancy, independent of patient wishes. As always, new technologies can be used for both good and for evil.)
These innovations involving drones, bacteria, and AI are just three of many promising developments in health care. It’s easy for free-market advocates like myself to become discouraged about current political wrangling over health care policy. But I remain optimistic about the prospect for future scientific and technical medical advances. As long as our political and economic systems allow humans to freely think, experiment, and innovate, we can continue to find new ways to improve the quality of health care and the quality of human life.