The Technological Age of Medicine

Discussions on telemedicine shed light on how new technologies can be applied to medical training and patient care.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

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By Emily Tan

Looking beyond the pandemic, we must begin to think about whether the practices we have collectively adopted during quarantine are here to stay. While some states see spikes in infections as shops and public areas reopen, others see flattening curves as its inhabitants adhere to social distancing guidelines. Over the past few months, questions like “Is there an end to social distancing?” and “How can we return to our pre-pandemic way of life quickly while keeping everyone safe?” have forced officials to rethink which models adopted during the pandemic should remain in place after it subsides. Meanwhile, other officials consider adopting new technologies into standard medical practice.

The ongoing practice of telemedicine is one such model that has sparked debate among policymakers, doctors, and patients. Though the practice of telemedicine began years ago, it saw dramatic growth as the pandemic escalated. When coronavirus cases in New York skyrocketed, for example, more people in the Northeast scheduled online appointments due to safety concerns. And why wouldn’t they? Telemedicine is a cheap, convenient, and popular alternative to in-person checkups in overcrowded medical facilities. By seeing their doctors remotely, patients can bypass the waiting room and enjoy the comfort of their own homes while receiving the same care as before. Proponents of telehealth also argue that it increases access to healthcare in rural areas, optimizes staff distribution, and lessens the financial impact when a patient skips an appointment. Insurers are considering telemedicine because they can pay doctors less for their online services.

However, according to a study on patient satisfaction with telehealth, most still prefer in-person checkups. Though half of the patients were satisfied with scheduling online appointments, over 70 percent were not satisfied with the quality of care. Furthermore, doctors are receiving conflicting information on pay rates because the quality of their services isn’t as easily documented online. In fact, existing laws in 31 states fail to reach a consensus on how much to pay for telehealth services. While private insurers currently cover the costs of telemedicine, whether they will continue after the pandemic remains unaddressed. There are also limitations to telemedicine in terms of different ways to diagnose disease. While infections and certain chronic diseases are easy to diagnose and check up on remotely, other conditions require the use of medical equipment to provide a proper diagnosis. For example, the nasal swab test, the most common and effective tool used to diagnose COVID-19, requires a doctor to administer and send the test to a lab. Magnetic Resonance Imaging machines are needed to diagnose cancer, injuries, and other problems if other tests fail to produce viable results. Also, bone injuries often require CT scans or X-rays to track recovery.

Therefore, the challenge for switching to an online healthcare model lies in persuading insurance providers that it’ll not only help diagnose and treat typical diseases but also those that require hands-on testing. Remote treatment for mental health and chronic disease also remains unaddressed.

Fortunately, recent technological advancements like virtual reality (VR) may be the answer to this dilemma. VR, famously depicted in the novel “Ready Player One,” blocks out user interaction with the real world and shows them a digital world using two screens in a headset. Carrie Shaw, founder and CEO of Embodied Labs, uses VR to create an immersive training experience for doctors. Her mother’s struggle with dementia was an inspiration for her company. Seeing how difficult it was to envision the effects of her mother’s condition, Shaw created programs that show how patients with dementia see the world. She later extended the reach of her technology to help doctors explore other diseases associated with aging. For instance, doctors trained under her program can see examples of plaque buildup and the progression of brain decay in Alzheimer’s patients. Her VR also helps doctors perceive the world in the same way patients with vision loss or hearing loss do. She hopes that, in the future, all doctors will be able to use her technology to better treat elderly patients.

However, Embodied Labs is just one example of how VR can be used to provide better treatment. VR is also used in medical training, which is especially applicable during the pandemic because many students are unable to return to medical school. Osso VR, for instance, uses virtual reality to train surgeons using simulated operations. Studies show that around 30 percent of surgeons who have recently graduated are unable to perform surgeries independently. Osso VR addresses this issue by providing an intuitive and responsive simulation that allows surgeons to assess themselves during and after virtual operations. Programs like these are especially useful during the pandemic because it lets medical students receive the training they need when schools remain closed. In addition, VR can be used to simulate ICU procedures, like how to operate a ventilator, for doctors who have yet to practice outside of school. These simulations can be improved by creating more realistic simulations with several patients experiencing different symptoms to better train doctors to triage and operate under pressure. By helping doctors better understand the conditions within hospitals in high-risk areas like New York, embodiment technology can also improve the efficacy of emergency treatment. This, in turn, leads to more doctors being available to address the needs of other patients. If applied effectively, virtual reality can address the shortage of doctors in the U.S. and reduce unnecessary labor.

VR also helps doctors safely treat chronic diseases while meeting social distancing guidelines. For instance, researchers at the University of Utah conducted a study on the use of VR to treat patients with Parkinson’s by immersing them in a simulated world and guiding them with simple movement and coordination tasks. The 10 patients on which the study was conducted each reported a greater range of motion in their hips and ankles and improvement in navigation and balance. The patients also reported that the treatment was fun and challenging, creating a safe environment for them to explore. In the future, the scientists intend to compare their methods with other therapies to confirm its effectiveness. If their techniques are approved, it would revolutionize the way doctors treat chronic illnesses. It also answers the question of how to treat chronic disease remotely. Currently, two treatments for Parkinson’s are medications and physical activity. By mailing Parkinson’s patients the drugs and necessary equipment for immersive self-therapy, doctors forgo the need for in-person checkups and guided therapies with their patients.

Though doctors still remain unsure about the future of telemedicine, its implementation in conjunction with other technologies, such as VR, shows promise. Still, the field of technology within medicine remains an untapped market. According to a report published in 2017, VR is but one technology projected to grow significantly in the next five years. Augmented reality (AR), projected to grow faster than VR, allows virtual objects to be inserted into the real world through a camera and a display. While less immersive, AR has applications in medicine that are just as useful as those of VR. If these projected trends become a reality, the state of medicine in 2030 will be vastly different compared to its state today.