Healthcare has definitely been in the spotlight for the majority of 2020, as the world faced the global coronavirus pandemic, scientists raced to develop a vaccination and we praised our brave and heroic health workers that cared for and protected our loved ones and ourselves. 2020 has also been a year where technology has been our lifeline, whether that is keeping in contact with loved ones, running our businesses remotely, staying informed or simply staying entertained, technology has been another prevalent factor in the tumultuous and unprecedented year of 2020. However, technology has not only been supporting our everyday lives but has had a hand in the standard of healthcare.
Virtual Care and Robotics
The level of minor and routine appointments being undertaken virtually has apparently skyrocketed during the pandemic due to a need for people to stay at home, and this may be a change that could stay. Patients have been able to make appointments via online appointment services, self-service platforms, order prescriptions remotely, video chat doctors or simply have over the phone consultations. Whilst this has not been possible for all conditions, this has meant that more medical professionals can see more patients and the risk of spreading contagious pathogens such as COVID-19 is reduced. Patients may also be able to access advice and care from doctors further afield and general practices could utilize help from consultants who may not have usually been able to fill in due to distance.
Virtual care could advance even further in the coming years with the development of remote robotics which would allow skilled surgeons to operate on patients on the other side of the world. Advances in robotic care may also increase the accuracy of surgery, as Wired wrote: ‘robotic surgery has further advantages over that performed by skilled humans: it provides a digital interface between patient and surgeon that can continually collect important data which would otherwise be lost: image analysis, user’s movements, telemetry from the robotic instruments and much more.’ Robotic and autonomous healthcare assistants are being developed, which would be capable of working in hospitals or peoples homes.
Other areas of technology such as Virtual Reality is being used to help train doctors, guide patients on pain management, help with rehabilitation and sleep, treat phobias and even with physical therapy.
Technological advances in healthcare really helped the development of the COVID-19 vaccination so rapidly. Several factors contributed to the speedy development of the COVID-19 vaccination, new RNA technologies helped this along. Although RNA-based platform its important to note that these technologies have been under research and development for over 20 years.
Wired wrote: ‘Both companies [BioNTech and Moderna] are pioneers in messenger RNA therapeutics, which uses a molecule that can encode genetic information. “Scientists can take part of a virus that is important to induce a strong, effective immune response, encrypt that with messenger RNA, and deliver it in a way that can be taken up by human cells,” says Ugur Sahin, co-founder and CEO of BioNTech. Those cells, as a result, produce the vaccine. This method is, according to Sahin, a very precise way of inducing immune response in patients. “The beauty here is we actually don’t use the virus,” [Tal Zaks, the chief medical officer of Moderna] says. “We’ve never had the virus in our labs, we don’t need it.” All that’s required is the genetic information. RNA vaccines are quicker to produce, more precise and very flexible as a technology. “The infrastructure required is relatively small and quick, which means in the manufacturing space, you have a tremendous agility that usual technologies don’t,” Zaks asserted. Vaccines typically take decades to develop, and Zaks and Sahin explained that their fast development cycles came from doing different stages of vaccine development in parallel, rather than sequentially. “We were planning for phase three and vaccine manufacturing even before knowing if the vaccine works,” Sahin says.’
Scientists in China were able to sequence the genetic code of COVID-19 early on from an early case and made it public – this meant that the information that enabled vaccine production to begin was at the fingertips of scientists across the world. The RNA technology meant that they did not need access to the live virus.
Gene editing has already allowed scientists to make large advances in treating major diseases such as Duchenne muscular Dystrophy, sickle cell disease, heart disease, and cancer via techniques such as CRISPR. It has been described similarly to ‘molecular surgery’ in that it allows for the precise correction of disease-causing mutations. CRISPR has also triggered the development of new forms of disease diagnostics.
Writing for Forbes, Bernard Marr predicted: ‘due to breakthroughs in this field, we’re likely to see accelerated development of forms of treatment known as “precision medicine,” where drugs can be customized to match the genetic profile of individual patients, making them more effective, as well as less likely to cause unwanted side-effects. The technology has also been used to create a “lab on a chip,” designed for fast detection of coronavirus infection. A handheld device capable of detecting if people are infected, without having to rely on inaccurate indicators such as coughing or a temperature, could be hugely beneficial in returning a level of normality to our lives.’