An oncologist administering nanorobots that swim through a patient’s bloodstream to deliver drugs in a highly targeted way. A person on a specific diet scanning their meal with a single device to reveal all of its major nutritional elements. A clinic’s transplant department 3D-printing whole organs. These are scenarios that sound like snippets extracted from a science-fiction novel. But these are digital health technologies that we will have to get used to in the future. 

Nanorobots, food scanners, and bioprinting are all existing digital health technologies that we’ve reported on The Medical Futurist. However, they are in the “too futuristic” category (even for The Medical Futurist!) as the future where they will be commonplace is several decades away and is something we might not even be around to experience.

They are too futuristic not only because the underlying technology is still in its infancy, but also because the digital health field faces several challenges that must overcome before addressing those technologies.

Here we contemplate some of those too futuristic digital health technologies that won’t get in the doctor’s room or in a patient’s home any time soon, how far off in the future they are and what needs to happen before we get to see them in practice.

Those distant digital health technologies

We often come across exciting digital health technologies that compel us to dive into the subject and present an article about it. At other times, we get the opportunity to review relevant products too. But over the years, some of those technologies have stagnated, with no significant developments even from major players in the respective field. Let’s take 3 examples, ranked from least to most futuristic, to illustrate these.

1. Food scanners

A couple of years ago, we had the opportunity to test Nima’s food scanners. The Silicon Valley-based company released two such portable scanners: a gluten sensor and a peanut sensor. These enable the user to scan for that respective content in a food sample on the spot. During our tests for those devices, we found them to be accurate and very practical to use. More importantly, their accuracy and convenience of use can literally prove to be life-saving for those suffering from food allergies.

But since our review in 2018, Nima hasn’t released any new products, was acquired by a medical device company in 2020 and users are reporting a lack of testing capsules. While their technology is indeed disruptive, the devices are limited to scanning single components each. Moreover, there are patients suffering from more food allergies such as egg, soy or lactose who would benefit from such devices; or ideally, a single scanner that could detect multiple food elements.

Other companies that entered the consumer market with food scanners of their own did not fare any better. SCio, whose handheld device could scan food and analyse its chemical constituents, shifted focus towards the farming industry rather than improve its existing product. TellSpec stopped issuing press releases since 2018 and apparently failed to deliver the handheld food scanner backed by 1700+ people on Indiegogo.

How far in the future?

The technology has been around for around a decade and there are some consumer products already on the market. But their uses are limited as is the number of players in the field. We should expect to see more scanners in the next decade or so but still with limited uses.

2. Nanorobots

In 2016, we released an article dedicated to nanotechnology in medicine. In it, we shared examples like “nanoswimmers” developed by researchers that could pave the way for programmed drug delivery. 

However, practically all of the nanorobots came from research labs which were more proof-of-concepts than practical applications. Recent news around the technology still revolves around the theoretical/conceptual aspects. But this is how digital health technologies often evolve: from conceptual stages in labs, through various iterations and testing stages before rolling out to a wider audience.

How far in the future?

We’re still at the dawn of nanotechnology in medicine, but it doesn’t mean we won’t ever see it in practice. In the coming years, we will likely hear about more developments in the field. But to see those in regular practice, we’re looking at 4 or more decades down the line.

3. One drop blood tests

This one will leave a sour taste in the mouths of Theranos’ investors. The startup amassed millions in investments following its promise to run 30 lab tests on a single drop of blood. This eventually turned out to be a scam, but if you dial down expectations, several tests can be conducted on smaller blood samples instead of a single blood drop.

Digital Health Technologies: Blood testing

For example, from a small blood volume, Genalyte’s FDA-cleared technology can run multiple, simultaneous, rapid tests and output a result within 20 minutes. Similarly, from a single blood sample, Nightingale can analyse numerous biomarkers.

How far in the future?

Unless researchers devise an accurate way to amplify the volume of blood from a drop-sized initial sample or accurately perform tests on a single drop, we won’t see the coveted “one drop blood test”. It’s safer to bet on “small sample blood tests” in this case.

The future path to everyday practice

It might seem like it’s just a matter of time before we see such digital health technologies in practice. However, some promising and available technologies like 3D-printed casts with their many advantages aren’t adopted due to several factors from the lack of scientific backing to the manufacturing cost. Others fail to take off because some companies, like Theranos and blood testing, set a negative precedent at the expense of promising technologies

But in reality, even if the polished versions were available now, they might not even be adopted. This is because digital health still has several challenges to address before even considering how to integrate those futuristic digital health technologies in everyday practice. How can we talk about nanorobots if we can’t easily access and download our own medical records from a healthcare institution? How can we get patients to use food scanners if it took a pandemic to get them to adopt telemedicine? 

Many researchers and startups can come up with amazing engineering solutions, but those are further ahead of the line. They don’t address real-life patient, physician or policy maker needs, and thus those will not be used in practice; at least for now. From the need for a cultural transformation to understanding the implications of digital health, those are some of the many issues that stakeholders in the field need to address first. 

Written by Dr. Bertalan Meskó & Dr. Pranavsingh Dhunnoo

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