What happened in health care technology this week, and why it’s important.
AR, VR Technology Gives Clinicians a New View of Complex Surgeries
Augmented reality and virtual reality platforms, which enhance traditional 2D images to create 3D versions, are used by health systems to train clinicians and give patients a better view of complex health concerns. Eric Wicklund’s article in Health Leaders online describes how Lehigh Valley Health Network’s chief of neurological surgery uses innovative technology to educate patients and improve surgical procedures. At LVHN, Jean uses the platform first to help his patients understand their medical conditions and how he treats them. The process is much better, he says than giving them images and trying to get them to imagine what’s going on inside them.
Why it’s important – Both technologies, the FDA says, “have the potential to transform healthcare, delivering altogether new types of treatments and diagnostics, and changing how and where care is delivered. Central to their potential in diagnosis and treatment is their ability to deliver both standard and entirely new types of content in highly immersive and realistic ways, remotely, and tailored to various clinical contexts. Physicians, patients, and caregivers can enlist AR/VR to help them prepare for, or perform, certain treatments or procedures.”
Infographic of the week – From Dr. Tazeen Rizvi – With the increasing prevalence of chronic diseases, finding new ways to improve patient outcomes and reduce healthcare costs has become more critical than ever. Understanding the patient experience is crucial in chronic condition care, as disease and long-lasting treatment significantly affect a patient’s physical, emotional, and social well-being. As we continue to innovate in digital technologies for managing chronic care, we must involve users – both patients and doctors – in the design process. By doing so, we can ensure that these tools are not only effective but also easily implemented and adopted.
MIT Researchers 3D Print Patient-Specific Robotic Heart
Ada Shaikhnag reports that Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have developed a method for 3D printing a flexible and soft replica of a patient’s heart in her article in 3D Printing Industry. The team can then direct the activity of the replica to imitate the patient’s blood-pumping capabilities. With this custom robotic heart, the team hopes to assist doctors in tailoring treatments to patients’ heart-related forms and functions. The soft robotic models are patient-specific and may aid clinicians in choosing the ideal implant for a particular patient.
Why it’s important – The advantage of our system is that we can recreate not just the form of a patient’s heart but also its function in physiology and disease. While MIT’s replica heart is not intended to be implanted into a patient, other 3D printing firms are actively exploring such applications – commonly referred to as regenerative medicine.
Podcast of the week – Sorry for this bit of shameless self-promotion. I joined Tom Salemi and Joe Mullings for this week’s podcast recommendation, the Device Talks Weekly episode. Here’s the episode description: “Medtech layoffs continue to mount. We’ll use this episode to begin to explore external and internal challenges. Looking externally, longtime industry watcher Henry Soch, now an executive-in-residence at Matter, shares his concerns about the current and future ability of medical device companies – both big and small – getting new technologies into hospitals. You can read Soch’s blog post here. Then, Joe Mullings, CEO of the Mullings Group, brings us inside his conversations with senior medical device industry leaders. In this interview, a sober Mullings reviews some of the mistakes large strategics have made. The result may be a few months of layoffs and cost-cutting. Mullings says companies could help themselves and the industry by not requiring their terminated employees to sign non-compete agreements. Mullings ends with hopeful signs for MedTech and useful tips for people looking to protect their careers.” You can listen to the episode here.
Forget designer babies. Here’s how CRISPR is really changing lives
Antonio Regalado’s article in MIT Technology Review recommends forgetting about He Jiankui, the Chinese scientist who created gene-edited babies. Instead, when you think about gene editing, you should think of Victoria Gray, the African-American woman who says she’s been cured of her sickle-cell disease symptoms. This week in London, scientists are gathering for the Third International Summit on Human Genome Editing. It’s gene editing’s big event, where researchers get to awe the audience with their new ability to modify DNA—and ethicists get to worry about what it all means. There are now more than 50 experimental studies underway that use gene editing in human volunteers to treat everything from cancer to HIV and blood diseases, according to a tally shared with MIT Technology Review by David Liu, a gene-editing specialist at Harvard University. Most of these studies—about 40 of them—involve CRISPR, the most versatile of the gene-editing methods, which was developed only ten years ago.
That is where Gray comes in. She was one of the first patients treated using a CRISPR procedure in 2019, and when she addressed the group in London, her story left the room in tears. “I stand here before you today as proof miracles still happen,” Gray said of her battle with the disease, in which misshapen blood cells that don’t carry enough oxygen can cause severe pain and anemia.
Why it’s important – Researchers say the technique’s march forward to use in medicine has been remarkably fast. According to Liu’s analysis, two-thirds of current studies aim at “disrupting” genes. Liu’s lab is working on next-generation gene-editing approaches. These tools also employ the CRISPR protein, but it’s engineered not to cut the DNA helix but instead to deftly swap individual genetic letters or make more extensive edits. These are known as “base editors.” The big problem is the cost and whether payers will reimburse for the technology. Patients won’t get the treatments if insurers and governments balk at paying. It’s a real risk. For instance, a different gene therapy for beta-thalassemia, developed by Bluebird Bio, was pulled out of the European market after governments there refused to pay the $1.8 million price. Now that gene editing has had its first successes; there’s an “urgent need” to open a “path to the clinic for all.”
Smartphone Photos to Detect Anemia
Researchers at University College London and the University of Ghana have developed a smartphone-based system that can detect anemia through simple photos taken using the phone’s camera. Conn Hastings reports in Medgadget that the process involves obtaining images of areas of the body that are least pigmented, including the white of the eye, the lower eyelid, and the lip. The app then analyzes the color of the imaged tissue. As hemoglobin absorbs light in a specific fashion, the app can use this information to calculate the blood hemoglobin concentration.
Why it’s important – Anemia is very common, affecting about two billion people globally. Some patients have more at stake than others. In children, for example, anemia can significantly affect cognitive development and disease susceptibility, so diagnosing and treating the condition is essential, especially since anemia is often readily treated using dietary iron supplements. The technology is intended for use in low- and middle-income countries where access to routine medical diagnostics may be unreliable. The technology could be instrumental in identifying anemia in children in remote areas, as the condition can significantly affect their development.
Building a Clinical Team in a Large Technology Company
I found this article in NEJM Catalyst by healthcare leaders from Google (Karen B. DeSalvo, MD, MPH, MSc, Chief Health Officer, and Michael D. Howell, MD, MPH Chief Clinical Officer) a fascinating read. While many believe that technology will improve health outcomes, there is a genuine and persistent concern that technology companies do not understand the complexity of health and health care. This challenge is usually discussed as an either/or problem. Either technology companies must disrupt the way health care works, or they won’t succeed because they will never understand the real world of health and health care.
The authors believe that there is a third way — one that establishes a robust, thriving clinical team within a major technology company that brings a deep understanding of the current healthcare system to bear and a passion for making real improvements. However, clinical teams represent new functions for technology companies, and so they also represent a cultural shift.
Why it’s important – This article summarizes several years of experience building Google’s clinical team and later adapting it during Covid-19 to offer six lessons for organizations embarking on similar journeys. Embedding robust, thriving clinical teams in major technology companies is an opportunity to realize the promise of improving human health at scale.