Health Tech News This Week – May 28, 2022

What happened in health care technology this week, and why it’s important.

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NY State is giving out hundreds of robots as companions for the elderly

The state of New York will distribute robot companions to the homes of more than 800 older adults. The robots cannot help with physical tasks but function as more proactive versions of digital assistants like Siri or Alexa — engaging users in small talk, helping contact loved ones, and keeping track of health goals like exercise and medication. James Vincent reports on the initiative in his article on The Verge. The project is being organized by the New York State Office for the Aging (NYSOFA) and is intended to help address the growing problem of social isolation among the elderly.

Why it’s important – An estimated 14 million Americans over the age of 65 currently live alone, and this figure is projected to increase over the next decade as the boomer generation ages. Studies have suggested that long-term loneliness is as damaging to an individual’s health as smoking. While deploying robots for elderly care is often controversial, advocates say robots are a necessary tool, especially when humans aren’t available.

Infographic of the week – CB Insights reports that funding for healthcare AI has dropped considerably in Q1 of 2022. Does this signal a shift in thinking about how broadly AI will be adopted?

Image Credit: CB Insights

Quote of the week – From Dr. Bertalan Mesko, The Medical Futurist

Image Credit: The Medical Futurist

Proton cancer centers continue to proliferate, despite shaky benefits and checkered financiers

Tara Bannow and Bob Herman of STAT (subscription required) report on the ongoing arms race for these facilities despite the treatment’s high price tag, spotty insurance coverage, and unclear benefits. Even though building a proton center is a risky financial bet, some believe the research that’s accumulating will eventually persuade insurers to expand their coverage of the therapy. And various companies and financiers are getting in on the action with hospital systems, betting that the fancy, expensive machines will draw patients back from the pandemic’s lull.

“There is something that gives prestige to health care systems when they can say they have the newest technology. It becomes a marketing device. ‘We do have technology. We do have proton therapy in our cancer center.’”

Steven Ullmann, health policy and economics, University of Miami

Why it’s important – The proton therapy gold rush is due at least in part to a Medicare decision many years ago. The evidence for proton therapy is stronger for tumors closer to vital body parts, like the brain and spine. But Medicare has never excluded any types of tumors from coverage. Medicare currently pays $1,321 per proton treatment in a hospital outpatient department. That means a Medicare patient with prostate cancer, who would likely get five treatments per week for eight weeks, would bring a facility nearly $53,000 in payments, even though other, cheaper forms of radiation are just as good for prostate cancer. And the marketing around these centers is off the charts. Ullman said he’s seen providers try to entice patients by offering to help with the referral documentation needed for insurance coverage. “If you build it, and they don’t come” is a recipe for financial disaster. The world of proton therapy is littered with bond defaults and bankruptcies. The simplest explanation is they spent too much on massive buildings and equipment — multiroom facilities easily top $200 million — and couldn’t woo enough patients or collect enough money from reluctant insurers. Color me skeptical. Studies to date haven’t shown a clear benefit of proton therapy beyond conventional radiation for all types of tumors. Many clinical trials run by the National Institutes of Health won’t produce results for several years.

Digital Twins And The Promise Of Personalized Medicine

Another interesting article from Dr. Bertalan Mesko” and his team at The Medical Futurist. in this post, he reviews the current state of development of digital twins and the various applications they will be used for in healthcare.

Why it’s important – in the future, if you could create a digital twin of a patient with all their organ functions all their cellular functions and can simulate this complexity, you would be able to predict weeks or months in advance which patients will get ill, how a particular patient will react to a specific therapy, which patients will benefit the most. As the authors point out, there are challenges to be overcome in the development of digital twins, including the amount of computing power necessary to run those simulations and navigating all of the ethical issues associated with using (and potentially profiting from) this massive amount of personal data.

Medtronic and DaVita announce New Kidney Health Technology Company

In a press release this week, Medtronic plc (NYSE: MDT) and DaVita Inc. (NYSE: DVA) today announced the intent to form a new, independent kidney care-focused medical device company (“NewCo” or “the Company”) to enhance the patient treatment experience and improve overall outcomes. The Company will focus on developing a broad suite of novel kidney care products and solutions, including future home-based products, to make different dialysis treatments more accessible to patients.

Why it’s important – while the transaction isn’t expected to close until the next calendar year, creating more home-based solutions to manage chronic conditions like kidney disease will allow patients and their families the ability to receive more care in the home and remove some of the scheduling, transportation, and coordination issues that exist in the current outpatient center-based model.

Smart Pacifier Monitors Electrolyte Levels

Conn Hastings in Medgadget reports that a team at Washington State University developed a smart pacifier that can provide continuous monitoring of electrolyte levels in saliva. The measurements could help to avoid twice daily blood draws for premature infants. The new pacifier uses microfluidic channels to draw saliva inside. Then, sensors within the device measure sodium and potassium ion concentrations and transmit the data wirelessly to a caregiver through Bluetooth.

Image Credit: University of Washington

Why it’s important – The measurements could help avoid twice daily blood draws for premature infants. Blood draws are currently routine to monitor for signs of dehydration, which can be dangerous for infants born prematurely. So far, the researchers have tested the device in several infants and found that the electrolyte measurements it provides are comparable to those obtained using conventional blood draws.

Scientists grow cells on a robot skeleton (but don’t know what to do with them yet)

Back to The Verge for this article by James Vincent on a proof of concept research idea in tissue engineering. The science of tissue engineering — or growing human cells for use in medicine — is very much in its infancy, with only the simplest lab-grown cells able to be used in experimental treatments today. But researchers say a new method of tissue engineering could potentially improve the quality of this work: growing the cells on a moving robot skeleton. As described in a paper published in Communications Engineering, they adapted an open-source robot skeleton designed by the engineers at Devanthro. They created a custom growing environment for the cells that can be fitted into the skeleton to bend and flex as required.

Why it’s important – This is very early research and experimentation. However, the team has shown that growing cells in a robot skeleton is undoubtedly possible. They need to find out if it’s worth the time. In the paper, though, the researchers enjoyed some optimistic speculation about the potential of this line of work. They reason that, in the future, detailed scans of patients could be used to create joint-perfect replications of their bodies, allowing tissue-like tendons to be grown for surgeries in human simulacra.

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