What Technology Changes Will Affect Your Practice Soon?

James M. Lebret, MD


February 01, 2017

In This Article

Technologies That Are 5-10 Years Away

Several interesting and potentially paradigm-shifting technologies will take at least 5-10 years before their adoption in healthcare is widespread.

Blockchain. Some experts expect blockchain to be as revolutionary as the Internet itself. This technology's secure data structure enables all kinds of transactions to take place without a trusted authority—such as a bank or insurance company—serving as middleman, allowing two people to trust one another without ever meeting.

The most successful use of blockchain technology is Bitcoin, a digital currency. Possible uses in medicine include drug discovery, patient identification, insurance claim simplification, and collection of data on patient-reported outcomes. Some experts believe that blockchain technology will eventually make global interoperability among different healthcare data systems possible, making modern EHRs seem antiquated. Currently lacking a robust infrastructure, however, this technology is years from common use in medical practice.

Augmented reality (AR). AR layers digital images or sounds, and usually additional information, onto the real world. For many years, AR has been used in medical education by layering text over anatomic structures. Recently, the game Pokémon GO grew extraordinarily popular by placing virtual figures around the country for "capture" by game players. The figures could only be seen through an app.

Future uses of AR may include vital signs pushed to a head-worn display during a cardiac arrest, facial recognition for patient identification in a crowded waiting room, and environment-scanning to locate the last pair of size-nine gloves in a stock room.

Virtual reality (VR). VR immerses the user in a simulated world. In one iteration, named "diversional therapy," pain researchers have found that burn victims feel less discomfort during dressing changes, confirmed by functional MRI imaging, when they are virtually placed in a world of ice and snow. Some psychologists use simulated cliffs or cockroaches to treat patients with phobias. Rehabilitation specialists prescribe exercises for recovering patients modeled by virtual trainers.

Limits of Technology

To be sure, every one of the technologies listed has drawbacks. Telemedicine may increase access to clinicians. But what happens when the suicidal patient is not physically in your office for a proper referral to psychiatry? A remote monitoring device may experience battery failure, and changes in patient status may be missed. Older versions of insulin pumps or cardiac pacemakers can be hacked and their settings changed, with possibly lethal results. Software flaws may allow personal data to leak to criminals. Poor algorithms or rushed products may fail to perform.

Creating a new technology is the easy part compared with the Byzantine process by which it is discovered, discussed, chosen, bought, presented, taught, piloted, troubleshot, rolled out, stocked, replaced, and scaled up. Much like human development, each emerging technology has a natural history of genesis, growth, and maturity. Each is subject to influences from a complex ecosystem of stakeholders that includes patients, doctors, government regulations, and laws. As shifts occur, the trajectory of each technology will shift. But the technologies discussed will likely endure and become more refined and useful to practicing clinicians.


Comments on Medscape are moderated and should be professional in tone and on topic. You must declare any conflicts of interest related to your comments and responses. Please see our Commenting Guide for further information. We reserve the right to remove posts at our sole discretion.