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Updated: January 30, 2011 17:14 IST

Emerging role of IT in medical sphere

D. Murali
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A recent talk jointly organised by the Chennai chapters of the Computer Society of India and the IEEE Computer Society was on ‘Futuristic information and communication technologies and their possible implications for biomedical applications,’ by V. Lakshmi Narasimhan, Professor, Department of Computer Science & Software Engineering, East Carolina University, US.

Speaking to Business Line over phone, shortly thereafter, the professor observed that emerging economies should ensure inclusive healthcare affordable at all levels of the population. “Newer priorities for public spend of budgetary amounts need to include universal health coverage, investments in medical and information technologies and related service providers,” he emphasised. Our conversation continued over the email.

Excerpts from the interview.

What do you see as the top 3 or 4 defining moments of IT in medical applications over the past?

I see the following as the defining moments of IT (information technology) in medical applications:

The Internet has changed the way medicine is practised, preached (taught), and promulgated. Considerable amount of datasets on various medical conditions are now readily available, and these data come from all over the world.

Specific field expertise can also be sourced within less than a day’s turnaround time. For example, my friend’s 107-year-old great grandmother complained of chest pain and the cardiologist performed the usual procedures, only to state that even though the datasets appear normal, he does not have a benchmark to compare with. So, he passed on the data to some of his Japanese colleagues (where most number of over-100 live) to get his observations confirmed. Now, these “100-year-olds” datasets are being made available also.

Furthermore, expensive medical books, slides and other materials are now available over the Internet for student references. Details on various conditions, hitherto “knowledge-limited” to only a small group of people, are made comprehensible to lay people thus empowering the common man.

CAT and MRI scan technologies have advanced the knowledge of the internals of the human body to the extent that the understanding of various parts of body and in particular that of the brain is now well-advanced. As a result, both static and dynamic workings of any body part and their effectiveness can be understood which can improve early diagnosis of diseases and possible cure and/or intervention.

There is a currently an fMRI study which claims to detect whether a person is lying or not. May be, this would evolve into a future lie detector, which can perhaps be more dependable than the current one!

Several disruptive technologies (e.g., blood glucose monitor, portable ECG machine, etc.) have changed the way people take care of themselves. What used to take considerable amount of time, effort and cost can now be done by individuals themselves, which has resulted in much enhanced healthcare and creation of awareness among common people that ‘health is their greatest wealth’.

Neural implants presently offer limited cure to those suffering from epilepsy and Parkinson’s diseases. In the future, this technology will considerably improve to the point that some of the science fiction entities could even be considered. For example, can a single chip implant make one learn the entire field of Chemistry in one step? More realistically, a better question could be, can diseases like Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia and a whole raft of mental diseases be cured? Initial researches are promising, but all these works need more sustained further efforts to prove their practical viability.

Where is IT delivering the greatest benefits in the field of medicine?

IT is delivering the greatest benefits in the fields of general practice through extended “medical awareness-seeding” in the common person. We hear doctors complaining – rather amusedly – that sometimes the patients are better prepared and well-informed about the diseases they have than themselves! One physician mentioned that the patient even informed the doctor about what procedure to use, what possible medication options are available, and their possible side effects too! Similar views are expressed by pharmacists too in the Western world.

The most remarkable benefits to medicine from IT are in the areas of implants such as neural implants, artificial vocal chord, several intelligent prosthetics, to quote a few. As mentioned before, these implants have significantly improved the life style of sufferers.

Other significant benefits to medicine from IT are in the areas of drug delivery mechanisms particularly for cancer and other debilitating diseases. With the advent of nanotechnology, (medical) nanobots can deliver the precise amount of drug at the right place and at the right time. Indeed such embedded systems technology based devices have simplified a number of procedures such as colonoscopy for instance.

Can you describe 2 or 3 areas of research involving IT and medicine, promising to result in breakthrough impact?

Nanotechnology is coming off to the point that in future most procedures and operations could be dealt with by a nanobot with minimal tissue and fluid (e.g., blood) losses, damages to the body and side-effects. Coupled with implant technology (the IT-related area here is embedded systems), nanotechnology is going to revolutionise the medical world with the ability to monitor patients 24/7 and provide just-in-time care.

Intelligent prosthetics arena is already taking off in a big way with the development of prosthetics “which can feel and sense”. These have been used on war-injured and disabled people with extremely satisfactory outcome. Further, these prosthetics are being used to enhance the capabilities of ordinary humans too. For example an ant can carry load many times its own weight, but humans cannot. However, with such prosthetics humans can do manual labour with much ease. Research in this area will hopefully one day eliminate physical disability altogether.

Genetic engineering and related areas are already impacting the human kind and the future will be even better. For example, rare diseases will be traced and stopped from spreading down the generation (through genetic transformation and transmutation), cure will be found for presently incurable diseases (e.g., diabetes), and individually tailored drugs will be designed so that patient care can be speeded up considerably. This area will see considerable research and many more Nobel Prizes in the future.

Your views on how India can develop and implement innovative use of IT in healthcare.

India’s greatest advantages are its English-speaking population, highly-trained IT workforce and medical professionals, and excellent hospital system at well-below Western costs. However good the system is, it cannot cater to even the Indian population comprehensively. Fortunately, technology reduces the overall costs of not only of diagnostics and treatment but also makes recovery faster, thereby leading to reduced loss of productivity. What is therefore needed is extensive integrated IT and medical infrastructure that could reduce the digital divide among the population thereby creating awareness in healthcare. India’s human resources in IT and healthcare should be able to take care of the rest of the world’s healthcare thereby becoming the “Medical Epicentre” of the world. For this to happen, India needs good medical and engineering universities with highly qualified and trained teachers who can couple world-class research with excellent teaching. To attract such talents, these professionals need to be paid compensation that is competitive across the world.

Any other points of interest?

One issue is that technology-based medical research in India is lagging behind in comparison with the Western world. There appears to be a systematic lack of interaction, appreciation and understanding between the two communities – IT and medical. If these interactions could be fostered through regular meetings of relevant professional societies, workshops, conferences and industry and government sponsored research, India could lead the world in patient care and biomedical applications. In particular, biomedical industries need to be fostered in India, as they have excellent potential to generate patents and other intellectual properties.

**

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