Medical innovations don't happen overnight — but in today's digital world, they happen pretty fast. Some are advancing faster than you think.

We're not talking theory or hoped-for breakthroughs in the next decade. These technologies are already a reality for many doctors and expected to grow rapidly in the next 1-3 years.

Are you ready? Let's find out.

  1. Artificial Intelligence (AI) Medical Scribes

You may already be using this or, at the very least, have heard about it.

Physician burnout is a growing problem, with many doctors spending 2 hours on paperwork for every hour with patients. But some doctors, such as Gregory Ator, MD, chief medical informatics officer at the University of Kansas Medical Center, Kansas City, Kansas, have found a better way.

'I have been using it for 9 months now, and it truly is a life changer,' Ator said of Abridge, an AI helper that transcribes and summarizes his conversations with patients. 'Now, I go into the room, place my phone just about anywhere, and I can just listen.' He estimated that the tech saves him between 3 and 10 minutes per patient. 'At 20 patients a day, that saves me around 2 hours,' he said.

Bonus: Patients 'get a doctor's full attention instead of just looking at the top of his head while they play with the computer,' Ator said. 'I have yet to have a patient who didn't think that was a positive thing.'

Several companies are already selling these AI devices, including Ambience Healthcare, Augmedix, Nuance, and Suki, and they offer more than just transcriptions, said John D. Halamka, MD, president of Mayo Clinic Platform, who oversees Mayo's adoption of AI. They also generate notes for treatment and billing and update data in the electronic health record.

'It's preparation of documentation based on ambient listening of doctor-patient conversations,' Halamka explained. 'I'm very optimistic about the use of emerging AI technologies to enable every clinician to practice at the top of their license.'

Patricia Garcia, MD, associate clinical information officer for ambulatory care at Stanford Health Care, has spent much of the last year co-running the medical center's pilot program for AI scribes, and she's so impressed with the technology that she 'expects it'll become more widely available as an option for any clinician that wants to use it in the next 12-18 months.'

  1. Three-Dimensional (3D) Printing

Although 3D-printed organs may not happen anytime soon, the future is here for some 3D-printed prosthetics and implants — everything from dentures to spinal implants to prosthetic fingers and noses.

'In the next few years, I see rapid growth in the use of 3D printing technology across orthopedic surgery,' said Rishin J. Kadakia, MD, an orthopedic surgeon in Atlanta. 'It's becoming more common not just at large academic institutions. More and more providers will turn to using 3D printing technology to help tackle challenging cases that previously did not have good solutions.'

Kadakia has experienced this firsthand with his patients at the Emory Orthopaedics & Spine Center. One female patient developed talar avascular necrosis due to a bone break she'd sustained in a serious car crash. An ankle and subtalar joint fusion would repair the damage but limit her mobility and change her gait. So instead, in August of 2021, Kadakia and fellow orthopedic surgeon Jason Bariteau, MD, created for her a 3D-printed cobalt chrome talus implant.

'It provided an opportunity for her to keep her ankle's range of motion, and also mobilize faster than with a subtalar and ankle joint fusion,' said Kadakia.

The technology is also playing a role in customized medical devices — patient-specific tools for greater precision — and 3D-printed anatomical models, built to the exact specifications of individual patients. Mayo Clinic already has 3D modeling units in three states, and other hospitals are following suit. The models not only help doctors prepare for complicated surgeries but also can dramatically cut down on costs. A 2021 study from Durham University reported that 3D models helped reduce surgery time by between 1.5 and 2.5 hours in lengthy procedures.

  1. Drones

For patients who can't make it to a pharmacy to pick up their prescriptions, either because of distance or lack of transportation, drones — which can deliver medications onto a customer's back yard or front porch — offer a compelling solution.

Several companies and hospitals are already experimenting with drones, like WellSpan Health in Pennsylvania, Amazon Pharmacy, and the Cleveland Clinic, which announced a partnership with drone delivery company Zipline and plans to begin prescription deliveries across Northeast Ohio by 2025.

Healthcare systems are just beginning to explore the potential of drone deliveries, for everything from lab samples to medical and surgical supplies — even defibrillators that could arrive at an ailing patient's front door before an emergency medical technician arrives.

'For many providers, when you take a sample from a patient, that sample waits around for hours until a courier picks up all of the facility's samples and drives them to an outside facility for processing,' said Hillary Brendzel, head of Zipline's US Healthcare Practice.

According to a 2022 survey from American Nurse Journal, 71% of nurses said that medical courier delays and errors negatively affected their ability to provide patient care. But with drone delivery, 'lab samples can be sent for processing immediately, on-demand, resulting in faster diagnosis, treatment, and ultimately better outcomes,' said Brendzel.

  1. Portable Ultrasound

Within the next 2 years, portable ultrasound — pocket-sized devices that connect to a smartphone or tablet — will become the '21st-century stethoscope,' said Abhilash Hareendranathan, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Radiology and Diagnostic Imaging at the University of Alberta, in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.

AI can make these devices easy to use, allowing clinicians with minimal imaging training to capture clear images and understand the results. Hareendranathan developed the Ultrasound Arm Injury Detection tool, a portable ultrasound that uses AI to detect fracture.

'We plan to introduce this technology in emergency departments, where it could be used by triage nurses to perform quick examinations to detect fractures of the wrist, elbow, or shoulder,' he said.

More pocket-sized scanners like these could 'reshape the way diagnostic care is provided in rural and remote communities,' Hareendranathan said, and will 'reduce wait times in crowded emergency departments.' Bill Gates believes enough in portable ultrasound that last September, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation granted $44 million to GE HealthCare to develop the technology for under-resourced communities.

  1. Virtual Reality (VR)

When RelieVRx became the first US Food and Drug Administration (FDA)–approved VR therapy for chronic back pain in 2021, the technology was used in just a handful of Veterans Affairs (VA) facilities. But today, thousands of VR headsets have been deployed to more than 160 VA medical centers and clinics across the country.

'The VR experiences encompass pain neuroscience education, mindfulness, pleasant and relaxing distraction, and key skills to calm the nervous system,' said Beth Darnall, PhD, the director of the Stanford Pain Relief Innovations Lab who helped design the RelieVRx. She expects VR to go mainstream soon, not just because of increasing evidence that it works but also thanks to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, which recently issued a Healthcare Common Procedure Coding System code for VR. 'This billing infrastructure will encourage adoption and uptake,' she said.

Hundreds of hospitals across the United States have already adopted the technology, for everything from childbirth pain to wound debridement, said Josh Sackman, the president and co-founder of AppliedVR, the company that developed RelieVRx.

'Over the next few years, we may see hundreds more deploy unique applications [for VR] that can handle multiple clinical indications,' he said. 'Given the modality's ability to scale and reduce reliance on pharmacological interventions, it has the power to improve the cost and quality of care.'

Hospital systems like Geisinger and Cedars-Sinai are already finding unique ways to implement the technology, he said, like using VR to reduce 'scanxiety' during imaging service.

Other VR innovations are already being introduced, from the Smileyscope, a VR device for kids that's been proven to lessen the pain of a blood draw or intravenous insertion (it was cleared by the FDA last November) to several VR platforms launched by Cedars-Sinai in recent months, for applications that range from gastrointestinal issues to mental health therapy. 'There may already be a thousand hospitals using VR in some capacity,' said Brennan Spiegel, MD, director of Health Services Research at Cedars-Sinai.

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MedScape | April 30, 2024