The future of diagnostics

When diagnostic technology pairs with professional healthcare expertise, we could make a big difference to people’s health, says Dr Paul Bates, Chief Medical Officer, Bupa Australia & New Zealand.

This blog is part of the series ‘The Future of Healthcare’ where Bupa’s Chief Medical Officers from around the world, shared their views on how technology and innovation will have an impact on healthcare, deep diving in four key topics: diagnosis, treatment, data and systems of care. 

By Dr Paul Bates, Chief Medical Officer, Bupa Australia & New Zealand

Rapidly emerging technologies used to diagnose anything from cancer to heart disease should result in more personalised patient care. But it’s when diagnostic technology pairs with professional healthcare expertise that we could make a big difference to people’s health.

About 70% of medical decisions are supported by diagnostics. Things have dramatically changed in this field in the last 30 years. I’ve seen innovative diagnostic technology skyrocket, from MRI scanners in the 1970s to new personalised DNA testing allowing doctors to more accurately predict the effectiveness of specific cancer drugs.

Technology is changing the healthcare landscape forever, but it does not remove the responsibility shared by all healthcare professionals, to deliver care which is sensitive to individual patient needs and preferences.

I have identified five emerging trends in diagnostics that I believe will have a significant impact on patient care.

1. Less invasive and more targeted

Diagnostic tests will continue to become less invasive and more targeted. A good example is the bronchoscopy test, an invasive procedure to sample lung tissue to diagnose lung cancer. It is painful for the patient and sometimes the location of tumours can’t be accessed by this method. A new approach to diagnosing lung cancer currently in development is the liquid cell biopsy. It uses samples from a regular blood test to analyze tiny fragments of DNA to detect the presence of cancer cells. In the future it may remove the need to collect biopsy tissue through invasive methods.

2. Real-time diagnostics

Real-time diagnostics is a way of diagnosing health issues which moves away from ‘one point in time’ diagnostics where you can miss parts of the patient’s story. Monitoring devices enable patients to be monitored continuously. At the Cleveland Clinic, a leading cardiac centre in the US, a lot of patient care is provided remotely across a wide geographic area. Data is gathered from wireless pacemaker-style devices and sent to a central base station, or “bunker”, where doctors analyse it for abnormalities. Treatment recommendations are often made by local care teams.

Dr Paul Bates, Chief Medical Officer at Bupa Australia & New Zealand
The patients benefit from faster, more accurate treatment and advice, less time spent in clinics and hospitals, and more satisfactory communication with doctors.
Dr Paul Bates, Chief Medical Officer at Bupa Australia & New Zealand

3. Predictive and personal genetics

In the future, genetic testing technology may make it easier to understand our own health risks and enable physicians to select individualised treatment with greater precision.

Oncotype DX, a genetic test which has recently received FDA approval, enables oncologists to predict which breast cancer patients will benefit from adjuvant chemotherapy, thereby preventing patients from having unnecessary treatments.

Beyond cancer, genetic testing can identify those children at high risk of developing asthma, for example. Doctors can then use sensor technology to detect early symptoms of the disease, and provide effective treatments based on individual data before the disease develops.

4. More automation including artificial intelligence

For some chronic conditions around 20 percent of scans interpreted by humans have some kind of anomaly missed, which can include failure to recognise cancerous tumours. The application of artificial intelligence to read images can improve this process. One team of researchers recently claimed that their programme can read mammograms with 99 percent accuracy.

University College London (UCL) Hospital is using a Google DeepMind computer to analyse brain scans faster than humans. This specialised technology offers the potential to minimise patient harm and accelerate the diagnosis of head and neck cancer.

5. More advanced wearables

Patient wearable devices (think the Apple Watch 10 years from now) will also play a key role in health monitoring and diagnostics. I expect the application to expand far beyond heart rate and physical activity, which is why through our Bupa Health Foundation in Australia; we are funding research to explore how smartphone technology can be used to diagnose depression and anxiety.

These five emerging trends illustrate how technology is transforming the way we diagnose illnesses in patients. This is enabling clinical care to become increasingly individualised, but most importantly it is also giving patients access to greater information about their health. Crucially, technology will also support doctors in making the right choices for their patients and further help steer them in the right direction for their health. I believe technology paired with healthcare expertise could make a real difference in how we diagnose and deliver health in the future, giving patients a more central role.

This article was first published at Bupa.com

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