Dr Harry’s Netlines: Crystal ball gazing

Harry Brown
It is always good fun to speculate what will be happening in medicine in years to come. There are so many areas to think about clinical, diagnostic and therapeutic breakthroughs; political and economic aspects, and technological innovations. It is the latter, I want to discuss and speculate about.

Before looking at the crystal ball and thinking what will happen in years to come (and your guess is as good as mine), just look at what has happened in the last 20 years or so. Consider the colossal changes brought about by the mobile phone, the Internet and broadband and digitisation of data and think about the impact that these changes have made. So what is next? Well I was fascinated and stimulated after reading two technology articles published in a recent print edition of the Economist (September 5th-11th 2009). I tried to use the ideas within these articles to stimulate my mind, how these potential breakthroughs could impact on the future practice of medicine.

Both articles are available on the web and this article looked at the prospect of having a desktop factory at your personal disposal with the assistance of a 3-D printer. Instead of a document printer, a 3-D desktop printer that “prints” or more correctly produces solid objects, could be one of the future breakthroughs. Now think if this technology becomes like the standard document printers we see now, with almost one on every desk. A radiologist could “print out” a 3 dimensional model of say a MRI or CT scan (though I am sure in the future, there will be an even better method of diagnostic imaging) and the abnormal anatomy could be even better and more easily appreciated.

Imagine holding in your hand, a three dimensional model of an abnormality within the abdomen and you can rotate it and understand all the anatomical relationships to the abnormal area. Even better, showing it to a patient could have a considerable impact on their understanding of their problem.

In the same section in the print edition, just a few pages onwards is another article which can also be found on the web,  titled 3-D: it’s nearly there. The article makes the point that three dimensional imaging is moving out of the cinema and is beginning to become adopted by other businesses and products. One company is making a system that employs lasers generating holographics that can reproduce the layout of a room. Transplanting that kind of technology, imagine reproducing an image of a body scan and turning it into a three dimensional image displayed within a room. This would allow a doctor to walk through and view this image from any angle and understand the complex anatomical relationships of the normal and abnormal structures. Or they could closely inspect a molecule or drug receptor, the possibilities are endless.

These propositions may sound like science fiction but in fact, we are on the cusp of making some of these technologies widely available. A few of these ideas may make the jump from the drawing board to the production line. The system that can reproduce the contents of a room could be available for about half a million dollars. If mass production can take place, then the price of such a system could drop remarkably.

The opportunities that these kinds of advanced technologies could offer medicine, are mind boggling. It is going to be fascinating watching these tools come into everyday medicine and I am sure this will happen in a short period of time. I can’t wait!

You can comment on this article and these websites mentioned on this blog and suggest others to be included in future Netlines. Alternatively, email Harry Brown at DrHarry@DrHarry.net

Harry Brown is a general practitioner in Leeds.