Tomorrow’s Medicine: How the COVID-19 Crisis Showed the Challenges and Possibilities Facing the Future of Healthcare

Illustrated by Shubhanjali Minhas

Stepping into a modern neurosurgical operating suite during an operation, one is immediately surrounded by screens showing everything from patient vitals to CT and MRI scans vital to the area of interest to the operation. Instrument positions are smartly tracked using technologies like Medtronic’s StealthStation S8 Surgical Navigation System®.  Once the patient is out of surgery, their information is entered into an Electronic Healthcare Record (EHR) so that information about the patient’s operation can be sent to the entire medical team involved in their treatment. Once the patient is at home, they are able to conference with their doctors using telehealth. While this represents a possible narrative for one patient’s care, it showcases the inherent intersectionality between today’s healthcare and biotechnology. In today’s healthcare, it is impossible for modern patient care to not be directly intertwined with technology. And this is a positive thing; with the advent of new technologies, patient care can be safer, more efficient and less invasive. As COVID-19 has highlighted, there are still challenges and possibilities in integrating engineering and healthcare.

The SARS-CoV-2 crisis has brought the concept of medical modeling to the limelight, and these models have highlighted some of the challenges facing the intersectionality of technology and healthcare.  When asked about her thoughts about epidemiological models, Dr. Natalie Dean Ph.D., an assistant professor of biostatistics at the University of Florida, wrote “I know I can come across as critical of models. I think models are very useful, and I don’t claim that I could do better. What I hope to emphasize is that models are no substitute for facts on the ground. Our best info for planning often comes from those on the front lines.” (3)

Dr. Dean specifically wrote this comment in response to an incorrect prediction about ventilators from the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) model developed at the University of Washington. As the COVID-19 crisis has progressed, numerous national models have been shown to be incorrect. And this is a major problem since these models have the ability to accurately predict needed materials to be brought in and necessary societal or legislative changes that need to be made before a crisis reaches a local maxima in a defined area.

 A short term solution to this problem is creating an infrastructure where doctors who are directly involved in patient care can feed their thoughts and data into a database that can be used by epidemiologists and data scientists. This data can be compartmentalized by local regions and then compared on a national scale to help other regions that are showing signs of increasing. But long-term solutions need to be developed so that initial models can be more accurate. Some possible solutions are increased funding to MD-PhD programs, more PhD to MD pathways and increased classes in medical school that focus on healthcare-oriented data science. These long-term solutions create more medical professionals that are able to extrapolate their in-person experiences of patient care into larger solutions that can be deployed elsewhere. 

Dr. Sanchez-Pinto, MD, Dr. Yuan Luo, PhD, and Dr. Matthew Churpek, MD, Ph.D. highlight the ability of data science in medicine in their paper, “Big Data and Data Science in Critical Care.” They argue that “[d]espite the increasing number of studies and publications in the field, thus far there have been few examples of data science projects that have resulted in successful implementations of data-driven systems in the ICU. However, given the expected growth in the field, intensivists should be familiar with the opportunities and challenges of big data and data science.”(2

The COVID-19 crisis also showed the ability to use engineering to rapidly respond to shortages in medical equipment. When the COVID-19 crisis created a shortage in the PPE available in St. Louis, Washington University was able to respond by developing in-house facemasks, ventilators and more. (3) This ability to create in-house solutions using cheaper materials is important, because it means that expensive devices like ventilators can be made using cheaper materials. This means that healthcare resources can be scaled to institutions with less resources than powerful institutions like Barnes-Jewish Hospital. This also illustrates the possibilities that emerge when healthcare professionals are able to interact with more diverse industries. As different fields come together, it will be possible to develop healthcare solutions in more diverse regions with different problem sets. 

The current healthcare crises have highlighted the challenges and potential in tomorrow’s medicine. Better patient-centric and region-centric healthcare can help physicians respond to crises more rapidly and with better information. As healthcare expands to more industries, it will be possible to create more accessible products in more regions that may not have the resources of a Tier 1 hospital. Tomorrow’s healthcare can look significantly different than it does today, but in order to do, medicine needs to integrate outside resources into its practice. 

Edited by: Isaac Mordukhovich
Illustrated by: Shubhanjali Minhas

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