Author Arthur C. Clarke once said: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."
When we talk about seemingly magical uses for modern technology, it is difficult to look beyond how it's used in the medical industry. After all, the accidental discovery of penicillin in 1928 changed the world, as did the first prototypes that eventually became the MRI machine in 1977.
Looking at the ways technology is now benefiting the healthcare industry, there are plenty of reasons to be excited as Alexander Fleming must have been nearly 90 years ago. These life-saving advancements are among the reasons why the price of private health insurance rises each year, although the benefits have the potential to make it well worth the cost.
Here we look at four ways technology is shaping healthcare as we know it.
1) 3D printing
It seems like 3D printing (commonly shortened to 3DP) has leapt upon us in recent months, and yet the medical industry has been using the technology for some time.
Today, 95 per cent of all hearing aids are created using 3DP, Forbes recently reported, while every day Align Technology prints around 650,000 pairs of dental braces.
Perhaps the most innovative and important medical uses of 3DP is in organ printing. 3D printers can use virtually any material to make a finished product – applying miniscule amounts of it to create an incredibly detailed version of the real thing.
One research company in California has managed to use this technique to print a human liver using organic tissue. While this is only being used for testing purposes at the moment, the ability to print organs and dramatically reduce transplant waiting times is thrilling.
According to technology research firm Gartner, 3D printer shipments will double each year until 2018, meaning we may soon have the infrastructure to make these life-saving innovations a reality.
Staying on the subject of machines, though taking them one step further into the realms of science-fiction, robotics are able to help in everything from medical procedures to ongoing hospital care.
The da Vinci Surgical System, for example, has been in operation for the past 15 years, performing more than 20,000 surgeries in that time. Four robotic arms are 100 per cent controlled by a trained surgeon, dramatically increasing precision and the range of movement when performing complex procedures.
Meanwhile nanotechnology – the use of astonishingly small robots – has taken a significant leap forward in their medical applications this year.
In January, researchers at the University of California, San Diego, claimed to have reached a breakthrough in using nanobots to repair organs internally by injecting the micro machines directly into a test subject's bloodstream.
3) Medical document management
Moving away from future technologies, there are ways that healthcare providers are finding new efficiencies with other innovations.
Digitisation is the ability to make virtual copies of physical objects, allowing them to be easily stored, sourced and referenced in the future. Different departments can easily find the records they need without relying on clunky paper storage.
Medical document management systems are the innovations helping to do this in the healthcare industry, and more hospitals and medical practices are getting on board.
MarketsandMarkets recently estimated that the systems were worth around US$220 million last year, though this is set to almost double to $424.5 million by 2019. The increase will be due to a steep year-on-year growth of 13-14 per cent, which the researchers said is being "driven by factors such as the need to reduce healthcare costs, ensure regulatory compliance, and improve clinical efficiency and patient care".
There's reason to be impressed by the way medical facilities are equipping themselves with innovative technologies in order to increase their level of care. However, people are also taking the issue upon themselves.
Last year, Apple announced a medical device that is designed as a simple wristwatch, allowing users to keep a close eye on their health status with in-built biometric monitoring.
Similarly, the XPRIZE Tricorder Challenge takes the form a $10 million prize for a company or innovator who can develop a non-invasive, hand-held device to help patients accurately diagnose themselves.
Experts believe this will allow for a smoother, less burdened healthcare system, as the data is linked directly to the patient's doctor, who can analyse the information being sent and prescribe a course of action.
With all this going on, it's easy to see how private health insurance, along with the medical benefits provided, will continue. Importantly, as these are likely to prove expensive innovations for healthcare providers, it could help people see the value of a strong health insurance policy.
If you have any questions about health insurance in Australia, feel free to call HICA on 1300 44 22 01 for free and impartial advice.