The release of new technologies in healthcare is almost always accompanied by anticipation. Anticipation that this new machine could disrupt the industry. Anticipation that this new concept, which may sound so alien, could become the norm. Anticipation that patients will all be better off for the development and implementation of this new tech. That anticipation is often felt most deeply when new technologies are brought into service in resource-limited countries, where healthcare infrastructure can be lacking or even non-existent. In developing countries, new technologies aren’t just nice to have; they can be life changing.
Technology is constantly evolving and changing the healthcare environment. Here are four new and emerging technologies that can greatly impact global health, and provide opportunities for better patient care to those populations that need them most.
What are they? Also known as UAVs, or unmanned aerial vehicles, drones have become a popular method of transportation for many industries—and now are making their way into the healthcare space. From delivering telemedicine kits to those affected by natural disasters to bringing blood units to surgeons in need,1 drones are quickly becoming a useful tool for laboratories and medicine.
How they can improve global health: In resource-poor countries, the lack of strong infrastructure can make sending samples out to labs a challenge. Ditto for countries that have remote populations in need of care. Drones can be used to transport samples from distant, hard-to-reach locations to laboratories for testing. While organizations have employed drones to travel short distances with samples, longer distances are now being tested (see the Q&A article in this issue with Dr. Timothy Amukele for more insight). By providing this mode of transport, laboratories can better reach patients who otherwise might not have access to laboratories and timely test results.
2. Mobile health applications
What are they? Smartphones are seemingly ubiquitous—in 2016, an estimated 2.1 billion people owned one. And on those phones, myriad applications can be downloaded to help people track their health, find out more about diagnoses, research symptoms, or investigate treatment options. How they can improve global health: Smartphones aren’t as omnipresent in countries such as those in Sub-Saharan Africa, but in other regions where healthcare services are inadequate and mobile phones more accessible, mobile health (mHealth) applications can benefit both healthcare professionals and patients alike. mHealth applications can help educate much-needed healthcare professionals in low- and middle-income countries. They also provide the ability for collaboration and faster communication between healthcare professionals, and, notes a recent article in The Journal of Global Health, “Healthcare professionals have instant access to images and test results whenever they require [them].”2
3. Low-cost genetic sequencing
What is it? It’s common knowledge that the cost of sequencing one’s genetic code has dropped precipitously in recent years, and a rush of companies now offer sequencing to detect how different variations within a genome can affect a person’s potential to develop certain diseases. But what many don’t realize is that this technology is also able to provide infectious disease surveillance and control, which is enabled through sequencing of viral or bacterial nucleic acid.
How it can improve global health: Sequencing viral RNA is helpful in HIV drug resistance, in that it can determine if the virus has gained mutations related to resistance to certain classes of antiretrovirals. It’s not uncommon for patients in Africa to wait more than a year after treatment begins to fail before they are tried on a better drug. If low-cost sequencing can be provided, drug resistance can be detected much sooner and more easily, providing improved care and outcomes. What’s more, the authors in a 2015 paper in mBio noted that “[Whole-genome sequencing] through NGS technology offers greater precision than do more-traditional typing tools such as multilocus sequence typing and pulsed-field gel electrophoresis, which may assist in refining outbreak investigations and better guide infection control interventions.”3Thus, next-generation sequencing (NGS) can also play a critical role in outbreak testing, disease surveillance, and cluster detection.
4. Liquid biopsies
What are they? What if, instead of undergoing a surgical procedure to remove a tumor for inspection, that same tumor could be monitored non-invasively? That’s the goal of liquid biopsies, a technology that’s still in early stages of development and research. Instead of surgery, a blood sample is provided from which cancer cells can be extracted and monitored. Roche, a developer of this new technology, notes that these biopsies only require 5 milliliters of blood, making the procedure easier and more convenient for patients.4 And a recent Forbes article notes, “The focus on blood biomarkers, such as ctDNA and CTCs, has unleashed the potential to now track and monitor tumors in a non-invasive manner. It is expected [that] in about two years, liquid biopsy will become an adjunct to tissue biopsy.”5
How they can improve global health: In developing countries where resources and access to surgical sites to obtain tissue biopsies are limited, liquid biopsies have the potential to provide a way for patients to receive an accurate diagnosis and better devise a treatment plan with their care team.