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Speaker offers glimpse of future medical technologies

by Scott Brinckerhoff - April 16, 2007

Tomorrow’s patients will benefit from new drugs and technologies, including remote monitoring, a healthcare executive told students Tuesday night.

Dr. Wendy Everett, president of the New England Healthcare Institute, gave her audience a quick tour of medical milestones over the past 50-plus years, along with a glimpse into the future.

Speaking at the second annual John and Valerie Rowe lecture, sponsored by the Honors Program and the UConn Health Center, Everett said future vaccines will be delivered by patches or sprays or even embedded in fruit, for use in developing countries.

Sensors, she said, have already shown that they can transmit patient data from an intensive care unit bed, ambulance gurney, or even a “wearable” device, to a central point where doctors can evaluate the data and prescribe accordingly.

Everett witnessed a dramatic demonstration of the possibilities, when climbers on Mount Everest transmitted data from vests they were wearing to a U.S. hospital.

Devices already exist, she said, to allow patients at home to monitor chronic conditions like diabetes and send information daily to health care professionals, with no more effort than it takes to step on a scale.

“The software alerts a nurse to a negative change in that patient’s condition, and can cut down on visits to a health care facility.”

Patients, in short, will be using technology to streamline their care, much as people use technology in the “self-check out” line at a supermarket, or shift funds around in an online bank account.

“Biotech advances, the marriage of devices and drugs, and new sensors will improve patient care and help contain costs,” Everett said.

“Self-monitoring technology can cut ongoing heart patient care by 25 percent.”

In 1955, life expectancy in the United States was 69 years and the population was 165 million.

Physicians examined patients in rudimentary settings, using basic tools.

The first medical computer was developed by IBM, but it took three rooms to house it.

Thirty years later, Everett said, life expectancy had risen to 75 years.

The first scanning microscopes, desktop computers, and cell phones were in use, and Rock Hudson was diagnosed with AIDS.

In 2007, the population has reached 300 million and life expectancy is up to 80 years for women, slightly less for men.

Cancer has replaced heart disease as the most devastating disease, but medical advances are making even cancer more treatable.

The new gardisil vaccine promises to protect young women from cervical cancer.

Many of the next vaccines and medicines, she predicted, will derive from the sequencing of the human genome.

She foresees vaccines for meningitis, rotavirus, HIV, hepatitis, and “universal” flu.

Everett also said doctors of the near future will likely make their rounds as “robots,” appearing on a computer screen in a patient’s hospital room and engaging in a “remote” – but live – dialogue with a patient.

The robot doctor will also be able to see the patient and receive data from sensors monitoring the patient’s blood pressure and other health indicators.

Following her talk, Everett took questions, and was joined by Dr. Peter Deckers, executive director of health affairs and dean of the School of Medicine; Dr. Gerald Maxwell, a professor of neuroscience; and Lynne Goodstein, associate vice provost and director of the Honors Program.

The group agreed that prevention is the best way to save health care dollars, which continue to consume ever-increasing percentages of the gross domestic product.

Everett said 50 percent of a person’s health is determined by personal behavior, with heredity, environment, and access to health care each playing lesser roles.

The doctors told students that in addition to mastering treatments, they will have to convince patients to change poor health habits.

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