Health: High Tech for Wellness
How are computers being used in health and medicine?
Neurologist Bart Demaerschalk of Phoenix, Arizona, was at home tucking into his Thanksgiving dessert when he received a message that a woman 200 miles away had developed drooping facial muscles and slurred speech. Within a few minutes, Demaerschalk was looking at her, asking questions, reviewing her brain scan, and confirming a diagnosis of stroke—all with the help of a twoway video and audio connection set up for just this kind of consultation.
Damaerschalk’s story is an example of telemedicine —medical care delivered via telecommunications. For some time, physicians in rural areas lacking local access to radiologists have used “teleradiology” to exchange computerized images such as X rays via telephone-linked networks with expert physicians in metropolitan areas. Now telemedicine is moving to an exciting new level, as the use of digital cameras and sound, in effect, moves patients to doctors rather than the reverse. Already telemedicine is being embraced by administrators in the American prison system, where by law inmates are guaranteed medical treatment— and where the increase in prisoners every year has led to the need to control health care costs.
Computer technology is radically changing the tools of medicine. All medical information, including that generated by X ray, lab test, and pulse monitor, can now be transmitted to a doctor in digital format. Image transfer technology allows radiologic images such as CT scans and MRIs to be immediately transmitted to electronic charts and physicians’ offices. Patients in intensive care, who are usually monitored by nurses during off-times, can also be watched over by doctors in remote “control towers” miles away. Electronic medical records and other computerized tools enable heart attack patients to get follow-up drug treatment and diabetics to have their blood sugar measured. Software can compute a woman’s breast cancer risk.18 Patients can use email to query their doctors about their records (although there are still privacy and security issues).
Various robots —automatic devices that perform functions ordinarily performed by human beings, with names such as ROBO DOC, RoboCart, TUG, and HelpMate—help free medical workers for more critical tasks; the four-armed da Vinci surgical robot, for instance, can do cuts and stitches deep inside the body, so that surgery is less traumatic and recovery time faster. Hydraulics and computers are being used to help artificial limbs get “smarter.” And a patient paralyzed by a stroke has received an implant that allows communication between his brain and a computer; as a result, he can move a cursor
across a screen by brainpower and convey simple messages—as in Star Trek.
Want to calculate how long you will live? Go to www.livingto100.com, an online calculator developed by longevity researchers at Harvard Medical School and Boston Medical Center. Want to gather your family health history to see if you’re at risk for particular inherited diseases? Go to www.hhs.gov/familyhistory to find out how. These are only two examples of health websites available to patients and health consumers. Although online health information can be misleading and even dangerous (for example, be careful about relying on Wikipedia for health advice), many people now tap into health care databases, email health professionals, or communicate with people who have similar conditions.
Often patients are already steeped in information about their conditions when they arrive in the offices of health care professionals. This represents a fundamental shift of knowledge, and therefore power, from physicians to patients. In addition, health care consumers are able to share experiences and information with one another. Young parents, for example, can find an online gathering spot (chat room) at pediatrician Alan Greene’s website at www.drgreene.com. If you want to put your medical records on an electronic keychain storage device, visit med-infochip.com.