For the Better When Technology Improves the Medical Experience
In just the past 10 years, there have been astounding breakthroughs in the medical field as both our medical understanding and our technological abilities advance. For example, in 2013, researchers from Cornell University used 3-D printing technology to create an outer ear, which functioned just like a real ear. This inspired the Organovo company in San Diego to take strides toward 3-D printing human livers for transplants, a process which could save countless lives. Technology and the medical field have always gone hand in hand, and it’s exciting to see how breakthroughs in one area lead to improvements in the other. Recently, I read “Artificial Intelligence in Medicine,” a compilation of papers detailing the proceedings of the 15th Conference on Artificial Intelligence in Medicine, AIME 2015. The entries cover an array of topics, from process mining and phenotyping to uncertainty and Bayesian networks. It’s a fascinating read, and it got me thinking about how there is so much potential for technology to improve our health care, specifically in pain management. One area I know can be improved is the process surrounding spinal cord stimulators to manage chronic pain. The current device works okay, but the process is crude. From a patient’s perspective, getting a spinal cord stimulator is a long, trying ordeal. You schedule an appointment to undergo a surgery to insert the trial device into your spine, which you take on a test drive for a few days. If the stimulator works to reduce your pain, you schedule another surgery to remove the device. After it’s removed, you wait two weeks before you go in for yet another surgery to have the permanent stimulator put in. Imagine how much simpler the process would be if you cut out that first part! Reading about the possibilities of artificial intelligence in the medical field led me to envision how one could develop a smart device, smaller than a cellphone, which could do the job of the trial stimulator without requiring insertion into the body. Electrodes would connect a patient’s back to the device, sending the same pain-masking signals to the brain. Rather than enduring surgery three times, the patient would rent the device and determine if the technology worked for them.
Such a device would also minimize guesswork. Right now, we rely on patients accurately reporting whether the stimulator made a positive difference. Alternatively, I imagine this smart device would monitor the body’s physical reaction to the stimulator and produce tangible data to show whether the spinal cord stimulator is helping the patient. This data could help a doctor decide if a stimulator was truly the best option for their patient. Patients could get a spinal cord stimulator faster, cheaper, and with more certainty that it would work for them if they could use an external device rather than a trial stimulator. The technology to develop this sort of device may not be available yet, but reading “Artificial Intelligence in Medicine” leads me to believe it’s not far off. There’s so much potential for technology to improve a patient’s experience in pain management, and I’m excited to practice in a time when many breakthroughs are ready to unfold!
Dr. Chi Izeogu
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