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How technology is transforming medicine

From reinventing the good old stethoscope to bringing us closer to a real version of Star Trek’s Tricorder, check out the fascinating ways in which digital diagnostics is changing medicine.

While communicating using emojis and ordering pizza online are fruits of technology, one arena where the revolution in digital technology ought to play a vital role (no pun intended) is the field of medicine. In medicine, diagnosis is a significant facet for obvious reasons. For one thing, you cannot have a proper treatment without the proper diagnosis. Also, in many cases, a good cure or even survival may depend on faster diagnosis.

Which is why it’s worth a look at the different ways in which digital technologies are changing way diagnosis is performed in medicine.

Finding the clues in medical images

IBM’s Watson is probably most widely known as the super computer with a penchant for beating the smartest people at chess. But if you thought that Watson’s acumen is limited to the black and white square boxes, you are fatally mistaken about that.

In fact, Watson has already brought significant changes in medical science, including diagnosis. One interesting way Watson makes better/speedier diagnosis is by accurate interpretation of medical images.

It was in 2015 that IBM acquired Merge Helathcare (for an impressive $1 billion). This acquisition brought to IBM over 30 billion medical images sourced from more than 7,500 medical care centres in the US. IBM’s idea is to feed these images to Watson.

Being the savvy artificial intelligence Watson could spot significant information that physicians might miss- the kind of information which would give doctors the clue to what ails a patient. To do this, Watson would also get the help of the technology called deep learning with which it has been upgraded. Deep learning helps Watson to identify data patterns that contain huge chunks of information.

Digital diagnostics
Tech helps processing images-and diagnosis faster

One example of diagnosis in this manner is with melanoma. Melanoma is a type of skin cancer that is quite difficult to spot. This is because it appears differently in different people. Combining deep learning and the wealth of medical images in its possession, Watson may recognize crucial features of the disease that were missed by the doctors to begin with.

For instance, if doctors feed the image of a recently diagnosed case of melanoma to Watson, the image would then be added to its database. This image could then be compared with literally thousands of other images. Once this information is compiled, doctors could gain from it an overview of how to diagnose potential melanoma patients in the future.

The confidence in the change that the acquisition of Merge by IBM would bring in health care came through loud and clear when Michale W. Ferro Jr,. the Chairman of Merge said that the “combination of assets” would deliver “unparalleled value” to the people. Judging by the way technology is being harnessed in novel ways for diagnosis, that may just be the case.

Piecing together the puzzle from genes

Diagnosis is the precursor to prescribing the right treatment. And like with many things in life, the art of diagnosis is also gaining in depth, becoming more precise. In more prosaic terms, diagnosis is no more just about identifying the disease, it’s also about identifying the minutiae of the disease which could be different from people to people. Such a diagnosis would help doctors prescribe the most apt treatment for a particular patient. An accurate diagnosis of this depth, if made possible in a short time could be the difference between life and death.

Particularly true for such deadly diseases like cancer.

IBM’s Watson comes into play on this regard too. The deep learning abilities of Watson enables it to translate a patient’s DNA into a genetic profile which the physicians could use to pinpoint the issues the patient suffers from. This would in turn help the doctors to prescribe the most ideal treatment options for the patients.

To get to such a level of precision-diagnosis is no easy task. For a single individual’s genome would take up around 100 gigabytes of memory. And analyzing this wide a range of information, not to mention the journals, studies, textbooks and health records would consume countless man hours. If doctors are freed from this task, they could tend to the patients more. Which is why Watson is such a powerful tool since it can perform the task in mere minutes of time.

Digital diagnostics
In depth diagnosis with genetic profiling

In terms of bringing down the time required for such precision-diagnosis, many acknowledge that Watson is already doing a pretty good job, including Dr. Lukas Wartman, assistant director of cancer genomics at The McDonnell Genome Institute in St.Louis, USA, one of the leading institutions in the field.

Having said that, it must also be added that Watson is still in its initial stages. It’s said that the technology that would enable Watson to perform at its fullest potential is yet to come. Though technology is progressing at a more rapid pace than ever before, evolution of technology is still a time consuming process. This means that Watson isn’t yet powerful enough to replace health care professionals but doing such things as processing billions of medical images and bringing down diagnosis time has already made it the doctor’s ally, and the patient’s new hope.

Using an old tool in new ways

Using something that’s already in existence in novel– often unexpected– ways could also constitute useful innovation. And this mode of innovation, perhaps not surprisingly is seen more among startups than established firms. Being in the back seat when it comes to funds, it’s often with creativity that startups fight the bigwigs.

The American startup Intelomed is one such. And they have come up with something that’s quietly changing healthcare for all.

Digital diagnostics
The good old Bluetooth, used in an all new way

The company’s technology called CVInsight uses one of the most popular technologies of today-the humble Bluetooth to help doctors gain information about a patient’s bodily parameters. This information would then help them come up with the apt diagnosis for the patient’s condition. The technology makes use of a single Bluetooth sensor that’s worn on the forehead of the patient.

Not only would this help doctors collect crucial data for diagnosis, it would also help them monitor the patient live, helping them act immediately in the event of some unfavorable changes in the patient’s statistics. For the health care professional, this means that ambiguities in diagnosis can be cut down using precise data.

Digital stethoscopes

The stethoscope has been hanging around the neck of doctors for so long that the device has become synonymous with the doctor’s profession. One of the most basic tools for diagnosis, the device is also getting advanced, thanks to digital technology. And this is definitely bettering the quality of diagnoses that are being made.

One of the problems with traditional acoustic stethoscopes is that the sound level you get is very low. Using modern technology, digital stethoscopes electronically amplify the body sounds and overcome the issue. This would require that the acoustic sounds be converted into electronic signals which would be then transmitted through a uniquely designed circuit. These signals would then be processed for the purpose of optimal listening. The circuit would include components which allow the amplification of the energy and also supports listening at different frequencies. Not just that, the sound energy could be digitized, encoded and decoded. Also, ambient noise could be reduced or even completely eliminated and the result can be channelled through headphones or speakers.

Digital diagnostics
An age old device gets a makeover!

Whereas traditional stethoscopes are all based on the same physics, the transducers used in the electronic stethoscopes differ. Probably the least effective (and also the simplest) way to detect sound could be placing a microphone in the chest piece. The drawback here is ambient noise interference. Another method is to place a piezoelectric crystal at the head of a metal shaft- the shaft’s bottom would make contact with a diaphragm. The diaphragm would respond to sound waves in the same manner that traditional acoustic stethoscopes do. The difference is that the changes in air pressure would be replaced by changes in an electric field. This way, not only is the sound of an acoustic stethoscope is preserved, but the benefits of amplification can also be had. There would definitely be an electronic tinge to the resultant sound but it would be less ambiguous, thereby helping doctors.

Also, the fact that sounds are in the electronic form means that features like wireless transmission and recording of sound clips are possible. Most digital stethoscopes have an audio output signal which, using a stereo or mono cable connection allows the audio to be transmitted in real time to a supporting app. The supporting software interprets the output for diagnosis.

Also, the audio outputs that are processed using different supporting software packages could be saved as files to be transmitted through email or other modes of communication methods. Certain digital stethoscopes even have audio data output options that could be hooked up to the audio input of a video-conferencing unit. The video-conferencing units would then be the decoders and encoders of the data to be transmitted through a network.

Some digital stethoscopes even allow data to be transmitted through a Bluetooth or wireless interface. Most wireless digital stethoscopes may require Bluetooth receivers.
Some models allow on-board recording and playback on the physical part of the stethoscope itself. Visual output of such parameters like the heart rate and EKG waves are also possible with certain supporting apps.

The buck doesn’t stop there for digital stethoscopes. The fact that they convert sound to digital signals means that they can transmit the data either live or in a store-and-forward manner. These devices detect sound using the stethoscope sensor and then convert the sound energy into electricity which would be channelled through a circuit that can amplify it and filter it by frequency before converting the analog data into its digital equivalent. A corresponding digital stethoscope should be on the other end so that the digital signals could be converted into analog signal so that the sound can be processed by the human ear.

A Tricorder – a la Star Trek

Don’t get too excited for the idea of diagnosing someone using a tricorder as you see in Star Trek must remain in the realm of science fiction for a while. But certain new researches are pointing to a future in which this could be a reality soon enough. For instance, the idea of using breath tests to diagnose bodily disorders, if made possible would be a relatively inexpensive, not to mention painless and quick method of diagnosis.

Digital diagnostics
Science-fiction, soon to be non-fiction!

Related to this, a team of global researchers recently unveiled a nano array which could identify the chemical signature of 17 various diseases. However, for anything like a tricorder to be made possible with breath tests alone, the breathalyzers should be able to identify more than a disease at a time. The technologies that have been developed so far are rather limited in scope in this regard. However, the recent research has identified different breath odour signatures of different diseases. Simply put, the composition of the breath that we exhale would vary depending on our state of health. Now, if there exists a breathalyzer (a la tricorder) that could analyse these compositions correctly, we could have ourselves a ‘cool’ medical device.

New frontiers seem to be just a breath away.

Dhinoj Dings