Injecting Global Medical Field with Technology

08/28/2013 12:00 pm EST

Focus: HEALTHCARE

The most important and critical field where cutting-edge technology is really starting to vastly improve overall assistance and aid is the global medical field, writes Triska Hamid of The National.

The UAE is home to some of the world's most cutting-edge research into medical uses for semi-conductor chips. This area is a key pillar in the global medical device, technology, and equipment market, which is forecast to be worth more than US$440 billion by 2018, according to Espicom Business Intelligence, a unit of Business Monitor International.

In Abu Dhabi, researchers at the ATIC-SRC Center of Excellence for Energy Efficient Electronic Systems (ACE4S), a center jointly established by the Advanced Technology Investment Company and the Semiconductor Research Corporation, are working on the development of systems on chip (SOC) and micro-electromechanical systems (MEMs) in health care.

One such SOC currently under development is designed to monitor the onset of heart attacks by looking at a patient's change in weight.

"We have sensors that will be integrated in the shoes, which give weight and balance information. This information will be processed in correlation with the medical knowledge to give indicators about the risk of heart attack for the patient," says Ibrahim El Fadel, the co-director of ACES4S and a professor at Masdar Institute.

From advanced robotics that can enable remote surgery, to IT tools that can help ease and simplify administrative processes, technology is playing an ever-more sophisticated and crucial role in health care.

Increasingly, semi-conductor chips are finding their way onto the surgical table. The same chips that are used in devices like your smartphone or iPad can be used in the medical field.

Another project researchers from Khalifa University of Science, Technology and Research (Kustar) are looking at is a non-invasive SOC, which monitors the levels of glucose in diabetic patients to indicate when do they need an insulin injection.

Given the high risk of diabetes across the region, there has been a lot of research focused on this area. According to the International Diabetes Federation, there will be 60 million diabetes sufferers in the Middle East by 2030, up from 32.6 million in 2011. The GCC countries are at most risk with Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia and the UAE featuring high up in the top 10 countries for the highest rates of diabetes in the world.

"The idea of non-invasive glucose monitoring is the [goal] of monitoring. If successful, we will have a major impact on the health care industry worldwide," says Mr. El Fadel.

Professors at the American University of Sharjah (AUS) are also looking at dental care with braces imbedded with a chip that monitor the movement of the fixtures and will communicate with the dentist's office if any of them are separated from the teeth.

But it is not just high-tech gadgetry where technology can play a role in the development of health care. Many clinics and hospitals are now implementing electronic health records, which can reduce waiting times and misdiagnosis, and increase efficiency.

"We are using technology to make sure our care is really effective," says Marc Harrison, the chief executive at Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi.

"Anybody who is familiar with performance improvement, recognizes it improves quality and reliability of medical care. Using electronic health records provides a way of standardized processes as a way of solving problems," he adds.

"The technology behind the scenes makes things much safer for patients. When patient information is entered into an electronic health record, all sorts of vital statistics are recorded. This degree of integration is remarkable and will be a powerful tool in quality and safety."

If adopted universally, cases of wrong dosages given to patients because pharmacists cannot read a doctor's handwriting would become a thing of the past.

Using electronic health records, patient allergies will also be noted and so when a doctor prescribes medication, they will immediately be made aware of the ones that may be unsuitable.

"Those are huge benefits and allows for a coordination of care that old-style paper charts can never give," says Dr. Harrison.

Smartphone and mobile applications also present an opportunity to aid health care and can play a vital role in providing care to remote areas. The telecoms operator, Etisalat, has made headway in Africa through application, Mobile Baby.

"About 358,000 women die worldwide annually from complications during pregnancy, and childbirth, and most of these deaths are preventable with the access to quality care," says George Held, group senior director of products and services at Etisalat.

"Mobile Baby provides that care by connecting healthcare professionals to remote locations through mobile network connectivity to deliver diagnostics and treatment."

The smartphone today is sufficient enough to provide basic health-care information. Simply taking a picture on your phone of a wound, or a rash and sending it to a doctor or specialist can be the first steps in diagnosis and these trends are now beginning to take off.

"There is a lot of opportunity for us to use a highly penetrated market to improve health through apps and improve access to care as well. It presents an opportunity for patients to make appointments, participate in forums, and discuss illnesses," says Dr. Harrison.

Given the vulnerability of the online world to cyber attacks and hacking, some are reluctant to give over such personal information.

Eventually the benefits will be enough to move over to this new world of health care.

"One of the biggest fears that patients have is when you inject technology in health care, it will dehumanize the process of receiving care, that human empathy will be taken away," says Dr. Harrison.

"But if done properly, it will make it easy to do the right thing for patients and allows the provider, nurse, or doctor to attend to the emotional needs of the patient."

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