Digital-health thought leader João Bocas looks at the current status of personalised medicine and medtech devices, and ponders on the role they might play in the future of healthcare
Personalised medicine: ‘A medical approach tailored to the patient or a group of patients for prevention, prediction and treatment… that moves away from the “one size fits all” medical model.’ – European Commission
When patients think about personalised medical care, what they often have in mind is a face-to-face discussion with a doctor about their pain levels, diagnosis or general health. While this may be the sort of ‘personal customer service’ a doctor provides, it’s far from being what is currently called ‘highly customised healthcare’.
‘Personalised medicine’ is a buzzword right now, yet it’s not easily defined. In general, it’s used to describe a certain individualised healthcare process and the devices that support that. However, this technology is more than just a series of tubes and wires hooked up to a patient in a hospital, making them unable to move freely or even go home without heavy, loaned equipment. Personalised medical devices are making it easier for patients to be diagnosed and treated in the comfort of their own homes through improved technology that is small and comfortable yet powerful and accurate. The ultimate aim is precision in disease diagnosis and treatment.
Before the introduction of this kind of technology, personalised customised healthcare was something of a myth anywhere outside of the pharmaceutical industry, which has used tailored medicine for a while. This is, at its base level, a very big problem. There are standard rules of biology, but each patient is different, with different physiological reactions, comorbidities and interacting diagnoses. So the ability to give patients complete customised care isn’t an exact science, and it’s still a long way from being a complete science. But advances are being made that show we’re at least moving in the right direction.
One area of progress is in the development of health wearables. Devices like wearable ECG monitors are making it much easier for both patients and physicians to interact with each other – and separately – when it comes to their healthcare needs. They also bring about the idea of helping cut costs by clearing wards of patients who don’t truly need hospitalisation but simple monitoring and general health maintenance.
Within these devices there are two subcategories: diagnostic and therapeutic. The diagnostic angle offers us the chance to be more preventative rather than reactive in our approach to illnesses. An example would be the aforementioned ECG monitor, which used to be large and cumbersome, with the patient either in a basic hospital room or admitted as an inpatient in order to be hooked up to one and monitored. Now patients have access to smaller, wearable devices that can be stuck directly onto the skin. Similar diagnostic devices also enable EEG analysis through software designed to predict an individual’s response to psychotropic drugs, where the focus on predictability is highly dependent on a specific drug or treatment.
Therapeutic, patient-centric devices come in all shapes and sizes. I have come across, for example: a customised tinnitus treatment that uses audio signals to suit a patient’s specific hearing requirements; spinal adjustment systems that are tailor-made to accommodate a person’s own skeleton and bone structure through MRI/CT imaging; and the Artificial Pancreas Device System, a device that can monitor glucose levels and deliver insulin as needed to diabetic patients. When combined with molecular biomarkers, the new personalised devices can be extremely powerful. An example of this is Profusa, an American company innovating with sensors and multiple biomarkers, including body chemical constituents.
Technology like 3D printing is also making it easier for scientists to start developing this kind of technology. 3D printers have already been used to create prosthetics – what more could personalised medical devices bring to the future of modern medicine? We can only wait and wonder.
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