Stationed on the frozen planet of Hoth and injured by a wampa ice creature, Star Wars hero Luke Skywalker is submerged in a giant container of Bacta gel, miraculously healing his wounds. In Star Trek, space doctors heal wounds by pointing a machine at people with injuries.
Luckily, wampa ice creatures remain firmly in the realm of science fiction and are not a healthcare challenge we have to worry about any time soon. But what will the future of medtech look like for us alive today, and how will it help meet the health challenges of the future?
After all, if we were to transport someone from the movie theatre in 1977 when the first Star Wars film came out to today they would be amazed at the progress we’ve made. What progress can we expect in the next 40 years? What about the next 20 years? Or the next 10?
Meeting healthcare challenges of the future
Over the next 40 years, an ageing population will be the most important healthcare challenge we face as a society. By 2060, people over 80 years old will outnumber young people. Today, Sweden leads Europe as the country where elderly people can expect to live the longest free from any disability. A 65 year old woman in Sweden can expect to live a further 8.5 years disability free.
The innovation we in medical technology drive is central to easing the burden on patients and society of an ageing population. We have been quietly and determinedly getting on with the job of delivering the next step towards making science fiction a reality. Looking just 10-20 years into the future there are already incredible steps forward to celebrate.
What does the future look like for medtech?
In general surgery, robotics will become routine. Already in the US 90% of surgeries to remove the prostate are performed robotically. Robotic surgery, performed with miniaturized instruments mounted on robotic arms, allows surgeons unprecedented precision and control. Robotics, 3-D imaging and augmented reality will soon allow surgeons to see structures as tiny as blood vessels in the liver. Surgeons will begin to feel as if they are actually inside the patient. One day, instruments will give real-time diagnostic feedback on the chemical and biological composition of tissue to surgeons. For an ageing population, all these techniques will speed recovery and allow operations that would otherwise not be possible.
While robots are the future of general surgery, lasers are the future of eye surgery. Cataract surgery is the most common surgical intervention in Europe – with more than 4.3 million procedures annually in Europe. As we age, the number of people requiring surgery continues to rise. Surgical implants can already correct multiple sight conditions at the same time. In the future, implants assisted by lasers, will not just repair impaired eyesight but improve eyesight beyond what we consider normal today. Blind Starship Enterprise engineerGeordi La Forge’s vision enabling VISOR and ocular implants no longer seem lightyears away.
Between 2015 and 2035 the number of stroke events is predicted to rise by more than a third, with a significant health and social care burden. This is despite falling prevalence thanks to advances in preventive care. Looking to the future, 3-D diagnostics will spot problems earlier, allowing for earlier intervention. New technologies such as advanced imaging techniques, real-time thermal modelling, plastic electronics and steerable catheters guided by radio frequency, will enable corrective treatment to be delivered with extreme accuracy and reduced recovery time.
The search for the next step
We have a lot to celebrate and look forward to in medical technology, but we cannot be complacent. Innovation is a decades long process. Incentives to encourage new discoveries laid down 20 or 30 years ago are only just coming to fruition. Next year will be the 10 year anniversary of the 2008 economic crash and subsequent crunch in healthcare spending. As we adapt to the new normal in healthcare, it will take all our collective determination to ensure we continue to invest in innovation, so that the science fiction of today becomes the medical reality of tomorrow.