Tectonic turns: How technology shaped healthcare over the decades

Tracing an episodic evolution, with technology at the interface of human and his health.

COE-EDPCOE-EDP | Updated: 25-03-2021 10:17 IST | Created: 25-03-2021 10:17 IST
Tectonic turns: How technology shaped healthcare over the decades

The earliest humans could only speculate about the source of their pain. Only later they learned to look for signs in the body such as increased temperature, inflammation among others as symptoms of sickness. As humans learned to live in groups, they started to have a specialist with eventual evolution into a formal profession of physician. Accidental experiments and observations could have led to the beginning of treatments. The earliest doctors relied heavily on observations and experience, progressing through a chain of trial and error so much so that a reliable doctor had always been believed to be old and frail.

Modern medicine, as it is understood currently, began in 1701 with the first smallpox inoculations by Giacomo Pylarini. In 1804, morphine, an opium extract, became the first chemical compound to be used as medicine. Subsequently, the development of technology allowed for the discovery and synthesis of new chemical compounds along with the discovery of their utility in treating ailments.

Evolution of healthcare through technology

Many of the ailments could be identified through observation, but many more could not. For the most part, the medical community had emphasized developing treatments for things they could identify, but the development of technology in the 1800s was about to open new types of clinical interventions that could change the way the disease is identified and treated. Rene Laennec, in 1816, invented the first stethoscope that allowed physicians to observe changes within the body for the first time, potentially giving them insights unavailable to their peers in past and thus enabling more efficient and robust identification of the disease. Subsequently, advances in the field of electrodynamics led to the discovery of X-rays which have been nothing less than revolutionary in the field of medical science.

Technological developments have continued to usher in new discoveries, inventions, and treatments. The discovery of DNA structure was made possible with the help of X-ray crystallography while the development of vaccines, which mainly occurred in the backdrop of our enhanced understanding of chemical reactions and our ability to isolate them in their constituents over years, have been helped by a series of technical innovations.

Beginning in the 1970s, a new kind of innovation emerged, a new iteration of which now promises to redefine medicine and healthcare in ways not imagined in the past. The period saw the beginning of the use of computers in healthcare. Computed Tomography (CT) scan, which is based on capturing sliced images of part and then recombine them using the computer to detect abnormalities, was invented in the 1970s. Subsequently, Magnetic Resonance Scanning (MRI) was invented, which worked by capturing the alignment of protons in the cells. The unusual alignment is used to identify alterations. This period of such developments can be safely called healthcare 1.0. The emergence of IT to record health information called EHR along with the integration of electronic images lead to increased efficacy of treatment and interventions, which is often termed as healthcare 2.0.

The period after that witnessed the emergence of the use of high-volume static data, genomic sequencing, integration of different types of datasets, increased and more widespread use of computers, and was categorized as healthcare 3.0. The period is believed to have lasted until 2015.

Modern healthcare and technology

The developments in big data analytics, expansion of internet infrastructure, cloud computing, advancements in Artificial Intelligence (AI), Machine Learning (ML), and electronics among others are paving the way for the medical revolution unseen in history. The developments have led to the idea of value-based pricing in healthcare, which essentially means transforming the industry from one that charges for the services to the one that charges for the outcomes achieved and the one that seems to increase the overall wellbeing of patients. Although it is important to note that the adoption of value-based pricing in healthcare is meager, and it is still largely in the experimental stage.

Technological advancements also promise to democratize and decentralize healthcare. It promises to move from a system where healthcare services could only be obtained at hospitals to one where many of the same services can be obtained and disseminated more effectively and efficiently at any location. Technologies such as telemedicine, app-based tracking of health parameters, use of real-time data for predictive analytics, image recognition, personalized body profile among others will pave the way for early medical interventions by detecting the onset of a particular disease before it actually occurs. It will further help in identifying which medicine will work better on a particular individual, reducing the chances of prescribing errors.

Technology and disruptions have always been the harbingers of change in any industry including healthcare. World War 2, as the confluence of technological upheaval and catastrophe of an unparalleled proportion, led to some of the most important developments in medicine and healthcare. At the turn of the 21st century, the world was already undergoing another technological disruption brought out by the internet. The associated developments were also changing the healthcare industry, and the unprecedented disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic only made it the confluence much like the 1940s and 1950s. We already have sight of many innovative experiments in healthcare brewing at different scales such as the delivery of healthcare products through drones which, until now, was considered taboo. Telemedicine has also seen a humongous surge in adoption while another notable feat is that vaccines for COVID-19 have been developed within a year, a process that usually took years. For reference, the fastest time-period for the development of a vaccine was four years before the development of COVID-19 vaccines. These advances point to another revolution in healthcare and many of the disruptive trends will shape the future of the sector. But only time will tell how many of them can stick and succeed.

VisionRI's Centre of Excellence on Emerging Development Perspectives (COE-EDP) aims to keep track of the transition trajectory of global development and works towards conceptualization, development, and mainstreaming of innovative developmental approaches, frameworks, and practices.

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