There’s working in tech, and then there’s working in healthcare tech. You could hook your career to the next great dating app, or the next time-sucking Facebook mini-game, or you can dedicate your professional energy to technologies that prolong lives with early detection of disease, precision treatment plans, and better healthcare outcomes.
Want to work on the cutting edge of healthcare technology? Play a key role in a new wave of devices and procedures that make our lives longer and more healthy? Specific disciplines are making a big impact on the direction of medical tech found in wearable devices, clinical devices, and healthcare apps. Here are four subjects to master if you want to work in healthcare technology.
Artificial intelligence (AI) is an oft-misunderstood technology, associated with Turing tests and machines that will rise up and kill us all. The reality is a lot less dystopian, but equally intriguing.
AI describes a class of technologies that perform functions traditionally only possible with human input. This could be as simple as a process automation that performs repetitive tasks, like a basic mail merge or chat bot.
It also encompasses a class of technology known as “machine learning,” where software applications become more and more precise and proficient the more input they receive, the way a human brain becomes smarter the more it reads. Advanced versions of machine learning called “neural networks” mimic the function of the human brain, which operates by transmitting commands and data through a series of interconnected cells. AI does something similar.
Other branches of AI include language processing and rules-based “expert” systems that use “if-this, then-that” logic to make deductions.
AI has numerous applications in med-tech:
- Diagnosis and precision treatment plans based on AI “expert” systems that can process vast quantities of data, including patient genomes and huge sets of data collected by wearable devices uploaded to the cloud.
- Personalized follow-up applications that increase patient adherence to treatment plans, leading to better patient outcomes.
- Accelerated discovery and development of new drugs by pharma companies.
- Administrative automations that make the operation of clinics, hospitals, and pharmacies more efficient.
Orthogonal closely watches advancements in a class of software called “Software as a Medical Device” (SaMD). The FDA has issued special recommendations on the regulation of this new class of medical device, which doesn’t depend on hardware to perform its medical functions.
SaMD doesn’t depend on the device it operates, like a FitBit or MRI machine. Software may record the data or guide the magnet in the MRI machine, but it does no good on a smartphone or PC hard drive.
App developers are working overtime to develop software that can perform medical functions from a smartphone, smart watch, or personal computer. Many use wireless connectivity to communicate with healthcare IoT (Internet of Things) devices like implanted blood glucose or blood pressure monitors, and upload that data to the cloud.
Other examples of SaMD devices include:
- Apps that use the tri-axial accelerometer in smartphones and smart watches to detect motor conditions like Parkinson’s disease or count steps for fitness goals.
- Apps that use microphones in smartphones or personal computers to detect coughs, breathing irregularities, and possible early indicators of cardiopulmonary conditions.
- Apps that can use haptic feedback and biometrics to monitor blood pressure, temperature, and other vital stats. This function is still in its infancy. The SaMD experts who thread that needle will make a huge impact on the industry.
Is there any tech more likely to turn the world into sci-fi than 3D printers? They seem one generation removed from Star Trek replicators. Whereas 2D printers inscribe images onto flat surfaces, 3D printers use a computer program to craft 3D objects from malleable materials.
3D printing could replace any manner of manufacturing or industrial machining tasks, automating the creation of devices, parts, even complex machines. This has enormous potential in healthcare tech.
Artificial organs are some of the most complex machines in the universe … but med tech is on it. 3D printing experts could find themselves on the forefront of technology that could print replacement livers, lungs, kidneys, and hearts. The tech isn’t nearly there yet, but once it works, it could eliminate long waits on triaged donor lists, saving countless lives.
In the near term, the ability of powder-bed fusion 3D printing to work with medical-grade materials like nylon and titanium make 3D printing a viable solution for the creation of surgical instruments, prostheses, and implanted devices.
Virtual reality (VR) mostly makes news in the gaming world. Early VR headsets like the Oculus Rift offered breakthroughs in immersive experiential gaming or entertainment. Exciting, but a lark. Little impact on the human condition.
This is changing as VR makes more and more of an impact on the health tech world. The ability of VR to control perceptions of reality has major implications for healthcare.
Pain management is a major vector of development for healthcare VR. 100% of patients undergoing painful treatments or suffering from chronic pain disorders reported an alleviation of pain when outfitted in soothing VR, emphasizing the role the mind and anxiety play on the perception of pain.
VR simulations have also shown promise to enhance the learning capabilities of both children and adults with autism spectrum disorder. VR is also poised to make a splash in medical training, allowing med students to immerse themselves in an operating room or clinical environment without actual lives on the line.
Technological developments define our lives and lifestyles in a way that they haven’t since the industrial age. Today’s tech is particularly remarkable for its ability to be both benevolent and crass.
Aspiring techies who want to live their lives on the benevolent end of the spectrum have their eyes focused on med tech, where breakthroughs don’t just kill boredom or automate grocery delivery—they save lives.
By focusing their education and energy on technologies that will lead the way in med tech, college graduates and people considering a career transition can position themselves as leaders in the next wave of life-saving tech advances.