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From EHRs in the NHS to 3-D printing of human body parts: how technology is changing health

There’s not much in our lives that hasn’t been affected by new technology: Google Maps help you find the nearest coffee shop; GPS trackers help you train for your next 10K and video calling lets you chat with Gran while you’re in Thailand. The health sector is no different.

The use of technology in healthcare has taken a little longer to trickle down but has had enormous benefits across the globe. New research and development techniques have heralded breakthrough vaccines to combat cervical cancer and diarrhoeal disease, and robot pharmacists in South Africa have cut waiting times for HIV drugs down from 4 hours to 20 minutes. ‘Bioprinting’ was used successfully to create functioning prosthetic ovaries for mice (the recipients were able to conceive and give birth using them!).

The use of smartphones in particular has revolutionised healthcare in low-income countries. Babylon Health, a British startup, has set up an operation in Rwanda, where a consultation with a doctor through an app costs less than a dollar. A group from the UK’s London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine have developed mobile phone camera technology to screen for eye diseases that lead to blindness. Amref Health Africa, a not-for-profit group, is working on a mobile app that can be used to train community midwives and health workers.

Despite these advances, there are some notable hurdles involved in scaling up, both in the UK and abroad. The NHS has been slow to implement one of the simplest uses of technology: electronic health records. If you, like me, have moved around for university and jobs, you will know how archaic the system is and how hard it is for information to be shared between GP surgeries. In 2011, the UK government dismantled the failed 10-year, £12b project that aimed to deliver an electronic health records system containing patient records from across the UK. If a high-income country like the UK has trouble implementing technology in health, what is happening in low-income countries?

Many of the most innovative uses of technology in healthcare have come from low-income countries. According to IBM’s research effort in Africa, it is the continents’ severe shortage of health professionals that is forcing it to experiment with technology. In rural areas, low-tech innovations that do not require a reliable electricity source are essential. These include battery powered ultrasound machines and a gravity-assisted centrifuge. SMS has been used to remind patients to take HIV drugs and the ‘Solarclave’ uses a system of mirrors to heat a pressure cooker to 120°C to sterilise surgical equipment.

Although not under quite the same pressure as low-income countries, snowballing costs, ageing populations and an increase in chronic diseases in high-income countries, will no doubt make governments look to technology, and new applications, for answers in the future.

Further reading

About the author

Final year PhD student at LSHTM working on immunology of infectious diseases, specifically TB. I like using Google Maps to find coffee shops, using Strava to train for triathlon and Skype. I dislike changing GP surgeries.


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