Since 2010, we’ve seen many advances in the medical field; from gene therapy and attempts to cure Hepatitis C, to groundbreaking Aids research and treatment for cluster headaches.

With 2019 having drawn to a close, we decided to explore how health care might continue to evolve in 2020 and beyond, and reflect on significant healthcare developments of the previous decade. 

5 health predictions for the next decade

Connectivity

For those in rural parts of the world, where attending a doctor’s appointment isn’t an easy thing to do, they will be able to access healthcare from the comfort of their home - or through community-area booths. Doctor’s surgeries and hospitals in general will need an update to infrastructure to ensure they have state-of-the-art connective capabilities to deal with the increasing demand from patients. 

These upgrades will help to make this expansive space smaller, and allow for hospitals to be used for the most serious cases that require medical attention. Those who do have to attend doctor’s appointments or hospital visits will not need to check in - thanks to the increasing accessibility of facial recognition, patients will be checked in just by showing up. 

Connectivity will affect everyone involved in healthcare. It will allow doctors to supervise surgeries from remote locations, working alongside junior staff or with machines. 

Smart devices

Using technology for treatments is in no way something new. However, as technological advances continue and smart technology becomes not only more readily available but also cheaper, health will be more reliant upon it.

In the not-so-distant future, smart technology will be used for both treatment and for preventative measures. Having our health profiles at our fingertips on a digital screen will help us to understand that health is something we can manage rather than something we need to improve when we’re already ill. As part of this, wearable technology will be able to be included in treatment plans to monitor any changes in real time. 

Smart devices will allow for more convenient access to doctors, freeing up GP visits. In the future this could mean that doctor’s visits will not be the primary source of healthcare. By raising concerns online in a safe, convenient way, the hope will be that this will bring on earlier diagnosis for disease and illnesses. The near future of healthcare, strengthened by technological advances, will mean that current invasive surgeries will be significantly reduced. This means recovery times will be quicker and it can be a more appealing way to get your health checked. 

As we use these smart devices to track any changes in our health and to gain information to better our health, there will be much more data to analyse to make better informed decisions for earlier diagnosis. Further into the next decade, having been able to acquire millions of pieces of data, healthcare services could even be specifically tailored, creating healthcare plans that work for the patient on a molecular level. Health data will belong to the patient and they will decide who they share their information with. 

These changes will not be easy to roll out as many patients will need the skills to use this kind of technology, and gain confidence in how to use it correctly. It’s likely there will be teething issues because of this, but nearer the end of the next decade, using wearables to access your own health records and to be in contact with a professional instantly will be the norm. 

3D Printing

Technology has advances that may not be obviously linked to healthcare, like 3D printing. This technology has become much more advanced and printers have become cheaper in the last decade, making it much more accessible. 3D printing could revolutionise healthcare in the near future by making prosthetic limbs much more comfortable and flexible. 

Organs created using a 3D printer could be a reality much sooner than we think. Research is currently being undertaken at the Foundation for Research and Science Development in Poland to create a functioning, printed pancreas to help treat diabetes. Pancreas transplants are difficult and complications often occur post-operation, so allowing for a simpler, cheaper operation with lower risk would take additional pressure off the traditional care routes. The pancreas would use the patient’s own cells so organ rejection should be less likely. 

The printed pancreas research in Poland is still in testing, but early results have been positive. This breakthrough could lead to further trials, and if successful, could eradicate waiting lists for organ donation. 

Companion robots

Robots have been a key symbol of what our futures will look like for many decades. In this modern age, living with a robot is not something that is out of our reach. Companion robots are believed to be much more readily available in the next decade, to help the elderly population with symptoms of loneliness. These robots can function similarly to a pet but without having to feed or bathe it. 

Caregiving robots are in place in Japan, where there is a shortage for roles like this. Robotic services are set to become a multi-billion dollar commodity, believed to grow by 25 times its current state within 15 years. 

As companion robots become more widely available in the UK, and with wearable devices being used to monitor any changes, these technological leaps will allow an ageing generation to live more independently. Robots are able to move around without bumping into furniture, allows for access to video calling software and can remind their companion of any appointments or simply to drink enough water. 

Preventative measures 

The next era for healthcare will be just as much about taking health into our own hands as well as advancing technology and tackling the most pressing health issues. As our health information will be more accessible than ever before, the onus will lie with the patient to take their health seriously and manage any issues.

This could include using smart devices for weight loss, quitting smoking and managing alcohol intake. Being linked to devices and medical professionals, any changes can be closely monitored and any warnings can be communicated accurately. 

It will also mean a deeper look into DNA, particularly for babies. Newborns will have their DNA sequenced, and any defects can be discovered without any invasive practises, ensuring the baby’s safety. 

Eradicating the biggest health threats

In July 2019, a document entitled Advancing our health: prevention in the 2020s has clearly set out plans to improve public health alongside these predictions. Alongside bringing patients, hospitals and health centres online, the challenges that face us in the next decade includes tackling current health issues and preventing illness.

The numbers of smokers in the UK has dropped, as we become much more aware of the risks, but also as it has been banned in public buildings for over 10 years. However, 14% of adults are still smokers and are disproportionately placed in areas of deprivation. By 2030, the government’s plan looks to a smoke-free public with additional support to those who are trying to quit.

Also on the agenda for the next decade is obesity. As many as 66% of adults in the UK are identified as overweight or obese, a major contributing factor to cancer diagnosis - the second biggest cause after smoking. A third of British children are overweight or obese, consuming as many as 500 extra calories a day. The NHS plan sets out to halve childhood obesity and reduce the gap for children between the most and least deprived areas by 2030.

Alongside tackling the looming obesity issue, plans are in place to deal with diabetes too. The NHS Diabetes Prevention Programme will be doubled in the next five years 

Within the next 10 to 15 years, it has been predicted that asthma could be eradicated. A vaccine is believed to be in near reach, but in order to bring about this breakthrough, it would be incredibly expensive initially. Before this becomes a reality, respiratory issues in the future would be monitored through smart devices and any serious issues can be raised with medical staff in real time. 

5 health inventions of the past decade

First mind-controlled robotic arm to possess a sense of touch 

In 2015, Nathan Copeland became the first person to receive a robotic arm which could be controlled by the mind and had the capability to provide a “natural” sensation of touch. 

Copeland lost all feeling from the chest downwards having been involved in a car accident. He subsequently tested a sensory-bolstered robotic hand, which he governed using only the brain and that enabled him to experience “feeling” whenever the hand was touched. 

Produced by scientists in the US, the hand was wired surgically to Copeland’s brain, and a process of two-way electrical feedback was established. Although the signals were stemming from a robotic hand, Copeland felt as if his fingers were being touched or pushed. 

Having been blindfolded, Copeland was able to identify which of his fingers were being subjected to touch with an accuracy rating of 84%. In response to a range of touch sensation tests, such as pressing a cotton swab against the skin, Copeland described 93% of them as “possibly natural”.

Meningitis B vaccination for babies 

A vaccine for Meningococcal B (Meningitis B) was offered as part of the routine immunisation schedule for babies at 2, 4 and 12 months old, in September 2015. As the leading infectious cause of death amongst UK babies and young children, the vaccine against Meningitis B represented a significant medical breakthrough.  

In the previous 20 years, between 500 and 1,700 people each year, particularly babies and young children, have contracted Meningitis B, with approximately 1 in 10 cases proving to be fatal. 

Around 2 million doses of the vaccine have been administered since it was licensed, and no safety concerns have been reported.  

Pioneering gene therapy reverses cancer 

Layla Richards, a one-year old child with leukemia, became the first person to be given a form of experimental therapy consisting of a vial containing genetically manufactured immune cells to kill cancer. The therapy had only previously been tested on mice.

The 2015 treatment was a complete success, with Layla making a full recovery in what was viewed by health experts as “almost a miracle”

The procedure involved using ‘molecular scissors’ to edit genes and produce designer immune cells formulated to target and kill leukemia, which returned in Layla’s case in spite of having had a bone marrow transplant and several rounds of chemotherapy. 

Medtronic MiniMed 670G insulin pump

The Medtronic Minimed 670G was a very significant development in 2016, as the insulin pump provided Type 1 diabetics with an automatic supply of basal, or background insulin, for the first time. 

It works in conjunction with a continuous glucose monitor, which sends blood sugar levels to the pump every 5 minutes. The pump is then able to function on an automated basis, either increasing or decreasing the amount of insulin it releases to the user depending on how high or low the user’s blood sugar levels are.

The device’s ability to control basal insulin automatically is a particularly valuable resource for diabetics overnight, when instances of hypoglycaemia or hyperglycaemia can increase as a consequence of people with the condition sleeping, and therefore not manually checking their blood sugar levels for hours at a time.  

Apple Watch Series 4 - development of ECG app 

In March this year, Apple made an ECG app for users of its Series 4 watch available as part of a free system update. The app allows users to take an electrocardiogram from their wrist, 

measuring the rhythm of the heart when symptoms such as a rapid heart beat or skipped beats are experienced, which can be indicators of the heart condition atrial fibrillation.  

Given that approximately one third of an estimated 1.5 million people in the UK are unaware that they have atrial fibrillation, the app has helped to better inform users about their health. The results of the ECG scan can be shared via PDF with doctors. 

A clinical trial of the app determined its sensitivity as 98.3% in terms of classifying atrial fibrillation and 99.6% specificity in terms of identifying sinus rhythm.