Technologies are not meant to replace what physicians do but to contribute to their work and support what they already do so they can do it better.
New technologies will allow healthcare workers to focus on treating patients and innovating, while automation does the repetitive part of the work. While every medical specialty will benefit from digital health and AI, some will especially thrive thanks to these innovations. Here, we list the top medical specialties with the biggest potential for development in the future.
We have also prepared a comprehensive e-book on the same topic with 20 of these specialties (and a bonus one!). Download The Technological Future of Medical Specialties e-book here!
No more repetition – doctors of the future will treat and innovate
Artificial intelligence, wearable sensors, virtual reality – these disruptive technologies are completely changing the way patients and doctors perceive healthcare. Silicon Valley investor Vinod Khosla once said that technology would replace 80 percent of doctors in the future because machines will be more accurate, objective, and cheaper than the average doctor. We would not need doctors at all eventually, he added.
I disagree. While digital health and AI already have a huge impact on the way doctors work, it clearly matters a lot what kind of tasks we allow them to take over. There are many repetitive and monotonous tasks that most medical professionals hate to do. Digital health solutions can perform these better, faster and cheaper. These tasks usually do not require any creativity or empathy.
Yet, healthcare is not a linear process where an input leads inevitably to the desired output. There is a bigger need for the creativity and unique problem-solving skills of doctors than ever. These are the skills no digital health device or software can and will replace.
So, the process of digital technology coming into healthcare is more complex than just saying AI or robotics will take over jobs. As with other fields of innovation, there will be areas or jobs which will be more affected than others. There will be specialties that will thrive more than others. Here you find medical specialties that will benefit from the technological revolution.
1. General practice
Many doctors choose this specialty today to make a long-term impact on someone’s life. And it is true: GPs enjoy tremendous trust from their patients. But seeing someone only when they feel sick makes it difficult to prevent diseases and ensure someone’s well-being. It is even harder to do so when waiting rooms are overcrowded. In these cases, GPs only have a few minutes to diagnose illness, design a therapy, and offer health advice.
However, from digital stethoscopes to pocket-sized ECGs and portable ultrasounds, the diagnostics potential a GP can carry in their bag is amazing these days.
Wearable sensors and devices that stream data to a doctor’s smartphone, notifying them whenever vital signs are acting up will provide them with all the necessary data for providing care. These will also ensure doctors only treat those who really need their attention. Providing simple treatment advice remotely will thus become possible. In turn, this will increase the time GPs have to treat and advise each patient. This will build trust and ensure patients act on the doctor’s advice. What’s more, smart algorithms will ensure that GPs can tap expert advice on rare diseases and act as a gatekeeper to other medical specialties.
Due to the widespread use of wearables and digital health technologies, lifestyle medicine, this yet quite unknown direction of GP practice will hopefully become widespread. To put it bluntly, lifestyle medicine focuses on prevention and education, helping patients to live in good health as long as possible. The required holistic approach – propagating predominantly whole, plant-based nutrition, highlighting the importance of social connectedness or coping with stress, etc. – represents a major shift from today’s practices.
Digital health assistants and medical chatbots could also significantly ease the burden on GPs. In the future, patients could turn to chatbots with simpler questions about their health, about certain drugs, or manage their administrative matters. Concrete examples of such solutions already exist at the reach of patients’ fingertips. We collected 10 of the best examples recently.
There’s a very limited window of time for assessing the status and health of a baby or the pregnant mother. Wearable devices that monitor the mother’s and the child’s vital signs will ensure that in the case of an emergency, delivering care will not depend on the mother’s luck.
Though controversial, the gene editing technique CRISPR ushers a new era to this speciality. Advances in the technology even promise to treat most genetic conditions. Severe debilitating conditions like Duchenne’s muscular dystrophy could even be treated in utero before the baby is even born. With cheap whole-genome sequencing, pediatricians could also access a vast amount of data to diagnose and treat children. We are living in an era when assessing the symptoms of the kids is becoming possible for the parents with the remote support of the physician.
Deep learning algorithms and narrow AI started to buzz around the field of medical imaging lately. News like an AI created by Google’s DeepMind outperforming radiologists in detecting breast cancer sent many into panic mode. From the discourse around them, they got the idea that AI will replace radiologists soon. Yet, I believe that AI will augment their jobs and free them from plenty of their monotonous and repetitive tasks. Radiologists’ future will be much more exciting than checking hundreds of X-rays a day.
For example, IBM launched an algorithm called Medical Sieve qualified to assist in clinical decision-making in radiology and cardiology. It can scan hundreds of radiology images in a matter of seconds. It can then easily recognize malignant or out-of-place phenomena, while radiologists can deal with more complex cases. Bradley Erickson, Director of the Radiology Informatics Lab at Mayo Clinic told me that although it is not likely that AI would create preliminary radiology reports about its screenings for everything in 10 years, there is a pretty good chance it will do it in certain fields.
Radiology also benefits from digital health in the form of new devices. Portable versions of advanced devices are no longer sci-fi fantasies. The Philips Lumify and the Clarius Portable Ultrasound are two great examples of portable ultrasound devices. Recently, the world’s first mobile MRI scanner made the news. Rather than being worried, such advances make it an exciting time to be in the field of radiology!
3D-printed digital contact lenses, bionic eye implants, augmented reality: the future of vision and eye care is full of science fiction-sounding innovations. In the last couple of years, it actually started to undertake the task of transforming the field of ophthalmology, offering its innovative solutions for the broadest spectrum of eye conditions. We outlined the way technology delineates the future of eye care and vision not long ago.
Even though Google and Novartis halted their glucose-sensing contact lens project, there’s much to look forward to in ophthalmology. Retinal implants and bionic eyes already exist and reinstate vision back to those who lost it. As far back as 2015, the first bionic eye surgery was completed on a pensioner with age-related macular degeneration (AMD) to improve his vision. A few years later, six blind people had partial restoration of their vision thanks to a neural implant used in a trial. Another brain implant allowed researchers in Spain to restore rudimentary vision with toxic optic neuropathy.
CRISPR is also showing promise in ophthalmology. It was reported that the technique was used to restore vision in a person with an inherited form of blindness. It may take months or years until we collect conclusive evidence about these technologies, but we are moving forward. Such endeavors give hope to the millions suffering from blindness.
Additionally, cheap smartphone-connected sensors and apps that use the phone’s camera can help in diagnosing eye conditions even in underdeveloped regions. The Personal Vision Tracker measures an individual’s refractive status, including near-or-farsightedness and astigmatism, while the EyeQue Insight determines visual acuity.
5. Sports medicine and rehabilitation
The first swarm of activity trackers focused completely on people who exercise regularly. But the future of sports medicine promises much more than just fancy charts. A new generation of devices tailored to professional athletes is hitting the market; we also tested some like the Fitbit Blaze. With detailed insights into movement patterns and force output in any movement, sports medicine physicians will have concrete data to measure how athletes are improving.
In fact, wearables are only the tip of the iceberg. Look at the amazing exoskeletons! These external skeleton-like devices support and protect the human body from the outside. They help in the rehabilitation of patients with stroke or spinal cord injury patients. The latest developments even allow paralyzed patients to control exoskeletons with their brain! Exoskeletons can also enhance strength so that they allow nurses to lift elderly patients or aid surgeons in reducing fatigue.
Moreover, the Nova Scotia-based performance company, Athletigen Technology Inc. works with several athletes aiming to use their collected DNA information to improve performance, health, and safety. These genetic tests could reveal additional insight from a heightened risk of injury until nutritional demands. Later, these results allow the helpers of an athlete to adjust their workout plan and nutrition accordingly.
This specialty will pave the way for precision medicine and targeted treatments. Oncologists already customize therapies based on patients’ genetic background and their tumors’ molecular makeup. These technologies aim to make cancer a chronic disease, rather than a life-ending condition.
Cheaper genome sequencing and measuring blood biomarkers are speeding up this process. Companies like the spin-off venture of Illumina called GRAIL are developing fluid biopsies. These are blood tests able to detect all types of cancer from a very early stage. By being able to filter tumor cells from blood samples, doctors could soon diagnose and analyze tumors earlier and without costly surgery.
Tech giants, such as IBM, Google, and Microsoft, as well as a series of start-ups, such as the Hungary-based Turbine, are building artificial intelligence solutions to design personalised treatments for any cancer type or patient faster than any traditional healthcare service. Philadelphia-based start-up Oncora Medical’s software provides in-depth oncology outcomes data and imaging to help improve operations and patient outcomes. But there are dozens of thrilling new technologies from mRNA cancer vaccines to 3D printed smart implants fighting tumor cells locally, from generative AI helping design immunotherapy drugs to whole-genome sequencing tests to detect cancer.
Our skin functions as a litmus test for our health. You see the passing of time, the amount of sleep, or the signs of stress on it. To assess one’s skin, no need to physically go to a dermatologist as smartphone apps offer this service. SkinVision is one such app that allows users to keep track of suspicious moles, with dermatologists remotely informing them when they need in-depth checks. We even introduced how such applications can work with a national healthcare system.
These solutions are a win-win for everyone. Patients do not have to wait in crowded waiting rooms for an exam, while dermatologists can deal with the easier cases in a shorter time online.
This field can also benefit from the help of AI. IBM’s machine learning approach to diagnosing melanoma achieved a 76% accuracy, and this was already a few years ago.
Moreover, amazing high-tech machines also come to the rescue! Back in 2017, New Jersey-based company, Canfield Scientific installed the first commercial Vectra WB360 whole-body skin lesion mapping system. It is able to take a 360-degree scan of the entire body and identify all the lesions on the skin. Mind-blowing!
And how can digital health help people who suffer burn injuries or have other permanent skin issues in the future? Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute scientists developed a method to 3D-print living skin, complete with blood vessels! This breakthrough will be crucial for burn victims and people with more discreet issues, like diabetic or pressure ulcers.
8. Emergency Medicine
There are situations when time is crucial, for example in the case of disasters or medical emergencies. These require urgent responses, so any innovation aiming to help this medical specialty should shorten the time required for reaching the scene of unfortunate happenings. As new technologies emerge, patients can increasingly become the point of care. In fact, fitting ambulances with portable diagnostic devices will save so much valuable time.
With the development of handheld devices and sensors, it will also be easier to assess patients wherever they are. Eric Topol, an eminent cardiologist and digital health pioneer was flying home from Washington DC once when severe chest pains crippled a fellow passenger. Topol reached for his iPhone encased in a special FDA-approved cover made by AliveCor. It can record users’ heart rate and ECG through their fingertips and transmit the results to an app. Topol placed the AliveCor case on the man’s chest which then showed he was having a heart attack. The plane made an emergency landing, and the passenger survived. This is how portable diagnostic devices like the AliveCor or Viatom Checkme Pro make patients the point-of-care.
Emergency medicine also benefits from driverless ambulances that could leave medical professionals on board to be able to focus entirely on the patient. Some governments are already entertaining the idea as a means to relieve some load from emergency services. This could further lead to turning cars into the point-of-care.
Medical drones have great potential to make the transport of drugs, vaccines, or medical aids faster. This is already a reality in Rwanda, where Zipline has deployed its medical drones to deliver medical supplies.
And what about drones delivering automatic external defibrillators (AEDs) directly to people who have just suffered a heart attack? Researchers from the University of Toronto are already experimenting with the idea based on their inspiration from ambulance drones in the Netherlands.
This branch of medicine is focused on the digestive system and its disorders, so they really want to see what’s going on inside your belly in order to help you. Until recently, it was very circumstantial to look around in the stomach or the gastrointestinal tract, but such gastric sensors nanotechnology will help a lot in the future.
What if physicians had a way to see inside a patient’s GI tract by having them simply swallow a pill-sized camera? It is already possible with the innovation called PillCam. More than 1.5 million patients have already experienced the benefits of this so-called capsule endoscopy. Physicians can now visualize the small bowel, esophagus, and colon with a small, disposable capsule used to monitor and diagnose disorders of the gastrointestinal tract without sedation or invasive endoscopic procedures. I hope that this practice will spread around hospitals very soon!
The advent of food scanners promised to disrupt the gastroenterology field. Such technologies could give detailed insights about the food, which can be especially useful for those with food allergies or dietary restrictions. Canadian company TellSpec is working on a hand–held food scanner that can inform users about specific ingredients and macronutrients thanks to an AI-based food analysis engine. Nima, on the other hand, already had portable gluten and peanut sensors. We’ve tested each and they worked wonders – although we are very sad that these seem to have disappeared from the market!
Recently, an army of digital health technologies joined the forces of traditional preventive tools in cardiology to counter stroke, heart attack, heart failure or any other cardiovascular risks. In the future, minuscule sensors, digital twins, and artificial intelligence could strengthen their ranks. If you want to see what the future of cardiology might look like, we collected the most exciting technologies from the field in this article.
This specialty already has some well-established devices. Digital stethoscopes lift the old-fashioned device to new heights to meet the requirements of the 21st century. The latest models are “2in1” combining the digital stethoscopes with a wireless ECG device – and all that with automated murmurs & AFib detection.
AI can not only help in continuous monitoring and the prevention of the development of cardiovascular diseases, but it can also support diagnostics, cardiac imaging or therapy selection, too. For example, Cardioexplorer is the first evidence-based AI-powered test that detects plaques (fatty deposits) in heart arteries with higher accuracy than many standard procedures.
Arterys’ AI-powered Cardiac MR Suite allows cardiologists to view the patient’s heart in 4D, by color coding the blood flow in the heart in real-time. However, the peak of showing medical images as close to reality as possible comes with the concept of the digital twin. For example, Siemens Healthineers is working on creating a digital twin of the heart.
The digital health revolution also means that patients have a never-before-seen amount of data about their heart: pulse and heart rate are vital signs measured by all kinds of fitness trackers and wearables, from Fitbit to Apple, Garmin, or Polar. Beyond the basics, numerous companies offer complex measurements making portable diagnostics for chronic heart conditions a reality.
Surgery will become a lot more data-driven, robotic, and artificially intelligent in the future. Digital health offers amazing cooperation between humans and technology, which could elevate the level of precision and efficiency of surgeries so high we have never seen before.
There are already signs of how digital technologies are gradually taking their place at the operating table. According to market analysis, the surgical robotics industry is about to boom. The global surgical robots’ market size is forecast to reach some 12.6 billion U.S. dollars by 2025. The most commonly known surgical robot is the da Vinci Surgical System and was introduced over 15 years ago. It features a magnified 3D high-definition vision system and tiny wristed instruments that bend and rotate far more than the human hand. The surgeon is 100% in control of the robotic system at all times; he or she is able to carry out more precise operations than previously thought possible.
There are other competitors on the market as well. Google announced a partnership with Johnson & Johnson to create a new surgical robot system. Cambridge Consultants’ AXSIS robot aims to overcome the limitations of the da Vinci, such as its large size and inability to work with highly detailed and fragile tissues. But in recent years names like Aquabeam, Musa, and Mako also became familiar.
Augmented and wireless surgeries
The use of VR/AR in the OR is also becoming prominent. Companies like Osso VR and ImmersiveTouch offer virtual reality solutions to train surgeons and/or to hone their skills, and these prove to be better than traditional training methods.
5G will also lead to radical changes in surgery. Proper internet infrastructure to support 5G networks will provide bigger bandwidth and faster and more stable connection. These are must-haves for telesurgery. Chinese scientists have reportedly used 5G to operate remotely on an animal and even to perform brain surgery on a human patient more than 1,800 miles away! Imagine the potential of using this technology for complex surgeries requiring the expertise of surgeons scattered across the globe. They will be able to collaborate remotely to save patients!
For these reasons and more, I believe surgeons have to rethink their working methods for the future and let digital technologies be integral parts of their profession.
More time for patients and better insight into disease
All in all, many jobs will be taken over by robots and automation in the coming years. But awesome opportunities will also emerge, especially in medicine. Physicians need to acquire new skills and improve their existing ones. In many specialties, they will have more time for patients and better insight into diseases. Thus, it is up to each of us to hone our skills and make ourselves irreplaceable in this brave, disruptive new world of healthcare.
Don’t forget to download our e-book The Technological Future of Medical Specialties to peek into the future of more medical specialties!
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