Health Tech News This Week – June 3, 2023

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

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Get Ready for 3D-Printed Organs and a Knife That ‘Smells’ Tumors

Hospitals are evolving at warp speed, and autonomous surgical robots are just the beginning. Wired UK lists eight technologies they expect to see soon. The list includes Fully autonomous surgical robots, Smart toilets to monitor and detect disease, Virtual reality therapy, 3D-printed organs, Contact-free monitoring, Ambient documentation, Portable MRI scanners, and A knife that ‘smells’ tumors.

Why it’s important – Many of these technologies are already being implemented in countries worldwide. The challenge is a question of scale. How rapidly will these be implemented? Will everyone have access to them? In the U.S., will there be payment for their use? Will they have clear benefits for a broad number of patients?

Infographic of the week – An analysis of data from the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), which spent US$45 billion on biomedical research in 2022, shows that many diseases that affect more women than men are underfunded compared with how much disability and death they cause — measured in disability-adjusted life years (DALYs). If funding were determined only by the burden of each disease, the circles below would all be the same color.

Image Credit: Nature | Vol617 | 4May2023

Radiography and medical students benefit from VR training

Eric Ridley in Aunt reports that most radiography and medical students appreciate the value of virtual reality (VR) simulation-based training to learn about radiation protection in the interventional radiology (IR) suite, according to research published online on May 25 in Radiography. In their study, the researchers used a 3D VR program from Virtual Medical Coaching designed to improve the understanding of radiation safety in IR. The program features a virtual IR room with a biplanar C-arm, an operating table, a patient undergoing an interventional procedure, two surgeons, an anesthetist and their assistant, a circulating nurse, a scrub nurse, and multiple pieces of equipment, according to the authors. Users can choose from neuro, abdominal, and cardiovascular procedure options. The software visualizes the areas and intensity where radiation is present during the procedure, as well as the real-time effect on radiation dose to staff from, for example, moving away from the radiation source or utilizing lead shields or glasses, according to the researchers.

Demonstration of the radiation field and the radiation intensity in the 3D VR interventional suite. The intensity of the radiation field is represented by red for the highest intensity, moving through yellow, green, and finally, blue which depicts low intensity. Image and caption courtesy of Radiography through Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Why it’s important – After introducing 3D VR radiation dosimetry simulation software to a group of medical students and radiography students, a research team led by Prof. Louise Rainford of University College Dublin found that 80% enjoyed the experience. And nearly 75% reported that the software increased their confidence. Furthermore, many of the students felt that the technology could serve as a suitable tool for assessment in low-stakes examinations, according to the researchers.

YouTube video of the week – From Healthcare IT Today – Six Months to a Virtual ICU at Houston Methodist – The video is full of intriguing details. For instance, they proudly offered every patient an iPad when the virtual ICU opened to deliver care and allow patients to talk to their families outside the hospital. But staff found they had to clean the iPad frequently, so the ICU is moving toward delivering the services through the TV instead. Thanks to the Sickbay Platform, the virtual service permits more monitoring and reduces staffing needs, a critical achievement in these times of clinician flight from the field. Learn from the video how Houston Methodist uses smart devices to collect vital statistics and avoid the hated nightly ritual all patients go through of being woken up to take vital signs.

YouTube Video Credit: Healthcare IT Today channel

A new AI chatbot called Pi is designed to serve as your personal assistant — here’s how it works

Brittany Nguyen in Business Insider reports that there’s a new AI chatbot on the scene — and this one wants to get personal. Pi, which stands for “personal intelligence,” was released Tuesday by Inflection AI. The AI startup has three cofounders: Mustafa Suleyman, the co-founder of DeepMind; Karén Simonyan, the company’s chief scientist; and LinkedIn cofounder Reid Hoffman. Pi is designed to be conversational and offer emotional support. In its opening dialogue, Pi tells users it’s meant to be “useful, friendly and fun” and prompts users to ask for advice or answers or to talk about whatever’s on their mind. Pi has been trained on data as recent as November 2022, Forbes reported. Details that can make a person identifiable are not used in training, Suleyman told Bloomberg.

Why it’s important – Like OpenAI’s ChatGPT and Google’s Bard chatbots, Pi is based on LLMs or large language models. This means the bots are trained to generate text answers by analyzing large quantities of online content. Users can delete their accounts through the iPhone or iPad apps or by sending an email request to Inflection AI with the phone number they used to register, the spokesperson said. Users can also request via email that Inflection AI delete its copy of conversations.

An Eating Disorder Chatbot Is Suspended for Giving Harmful Advice

A nonprofit has suspended the use of a chatbot that was giving potentially damaging advice to people seeking help for eating disorders. Wired’s Amanda Hoover reports that Tessa, which the National Eating Disorders Association used, was found to be doling out advice about calorie cutting and weight loss that could exacerbate eating disorders. uld shut down its two-decade-old helpline staffed by a small paid group and an army of volunteers. NEDA said yesterday that it has paused the chatbot, and the nonprofit’s CEO, Liz Thompson, says the organization has concerns over language Tessa used that is “against our policies and core beliefs as an eating disorder organization.”

Why it’s important – The news plays into larger fears about losing jobs to advances in generative artificial intelligence. But it also shows how harmful and unpredictable chatbots can be. As researchers are still grappling with rapid advances in AI tech and its potential fallouts, companies are rushing a range of chatbots into the market, and real people are put at risk. Crisis and help hotlines are vital resources. That’s partly because accessing mental health care in the US is prohibitively expensive. A therapy session can cost $100 to $200 or more, and in-patient treatment for eating disorders may cost more than $1,000 daily. Less than 30 percent of people seek help from counselors, according to a Yale University study.

Neuralink can now study its brain implant in humans, but it’s still catching up to its peers

Neuralink announced the long-awaited FDA nod on Thursday evening. FDA spokesperson Carly Kemper told STAT in an email that the agency “acknowledges and understands that Neuralink has announced that its investigational device exemption (IDE) for its implant/R1 robot was approved by the FDA and that it may now begin conducting human clinical trials for its device.” Lizzy Lawrence reports on the development in her STAT article (subscription required). It’s a critical turning point for the Elon Musk-led company — but the startup, however closely watched, is playing catch-up compared to its peers in the neurotechnology field.

“These are small markets, this is very expensive technology, and insurance payers don’t tend to cover things that ultimately will cost millions of dollars per patient. It’s also really complex technology that’s hard to scale out. The truth is NeuraLink is behind the curve compared to their competitors and playing catch up.”

Kip Ludwig, former program director for neural engineering at the National Institutes of Health

Why it’s important – Neuralink is one of a handful of companies building brain-computer interfaces or implanted devices that aim to translate brain activity into physical actions. The technology could help restore movement for paralyzed patients or allow them to control a mobile phone with their minds. The first BCI was implanted in a human by Blackrock Neurotech in 2004. Other companies have joined the fray since then, including Synchron, which is currently recruiting patients for an early feasibility study. The field continues to advance rapidly; just this week, a man paralyzed by a spinal cord injury walked naturally after Swiss researchers implanted a brain-spine interface.

New Alzheimer’s Drugs Offer Subtle Benefits—With Real Risks

Grace Huckens from Wired UK reports that Antibody treatments clear amyloid protein from patients’ brains, slowing the progression of their disease but potentially inducing deadly swelling. In June 2021, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) gave the antibody aducanumab a preliminary form of authorization called accelerated approval. However, the decision was mired in controversy—many experts believed there was no reason to think the drug would help patients. But with the next anti-amyloid drug, lecanemab, the story was clearer. It received accelerated approval in January of this year after a Phase III trial showed that it modestly slowed cognitive decline, as measured by the Clinical Dementia Rating (CDR) scale, a tool for evaluating a person’s ability to accomplish the tasks of daily living. While all the patients studied saw their scores worsen over time, those on the drug saw theirs decline by 0.5 points less than patients receiving a placebo. And this May, Eli Lilly announced that its drug, donanemab, appears to slow decline a bit more—by about 0.7 points.

Why it’s important – It’s not just the benefits of these drugs that are uncertain. During the Phase III lecanemab and donanemab trials, a total of six patients may have died as a result of side effects. Amyloid-targeting antibodies frequently cause the brain to swell and bleed, and though most patients experience no symptoms, a few suffer severe consequences. Those risks weigh heavily on the minds of many clinicians. People may be willing to take on grave risks to slow their disease. But candidates for anti-amyloid therapies are so mildly impaired that they can typically maintain their pre-Alzheimer’s lifestyles for a period and may live for a decade or more with their disease. If they are elderly, there’s a good chance something else will kill them before Alzheimer’s does.

Burnout Continues To Crush Clinicians, But Voice Tech and AI Could Help

Clinicians — including doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals — face high levels of stress and burnout due to the nature of their work, with about half of all healthcare workers reporting burnout in a recent Harvard study. Increased workload, long hours, and patient demands can all contribute to this burnout, potentially leading to decreased job satisfaction and quality of care. MedCity News’ Patrick Higley reports that advances in natural language processing (NLP), generative AI, and ambient voice technology offer potential solutions to this problem and burnout contributor. By leveraging these technologies, healthcare organizations can reduce the burden on clinicians and improve their well-being, ultimately resulting in better patient outcomes. This is already a large and growing field, with Grand View Research reporting a market size of $17.7 billion in 2022, which is expected to grow to $53.6 billion by 2030.

Why it’s important – Besides reducing workload, NLP and ambient voice technology can also improve the quality of care that clinicians provide. By analyzing EHRs and other patient data, NLP algorithms can identify potential health risk factors and recommend preventative measures. This can help clinicians to identify health problems earlier and provide more targeted interventions, ultimately leading to better patient outcomes. Together, these technologies have enormous potential to reduce burnout among clinicians by reducing administrative workload, improving healthcare workers’ efficiency, and creating additional capacity by freeing up time that can be used for other tasks. Automating routine tasks such as data entry and appointment scheduling also reduces the administrative burden on clinicians, allowing them to spend more time on patient care — reducing stress, improving job satisfaction, and ultimately leading to better quality of care.

Finally, good luck to those attending the 2023 Annual Meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) at McCormick Place in Chicago this weekend. With the Taylor Swift Eras Tour concert series at Soldier Field, I’m betting that traffic and just getting around will be a nightmare.

Image Credit: Stacey Tinianov Twitter Timeline 6/2/2023
Taylor Swift Stage setup in Soldier Field, Image Credit: Barry Butler

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