Medicine is one of the sciences that has developed the most in recent decades, and the best example of this is hospitals. From those old asylums for the sick to today’s very modern centers where new technologies improve consultation, diagnosis and treatment for each patient. And the future of these places looks even more promising: small buildings designed for a more intimate, friendly experience; personalized, integral attention with teams of professionals in different specialties who work together; and an important number of technologies that will help improve reliability and efficiency. There will even be patients who don’t need to go to a hospital because they will be looked after and monitored in real time from their home.
Just as they have done so to date, medicine and hospitals will evolve so as to offer better service and satisfy society’s demands and needs. In the future, health care will have to meet a large increase in the population because of a higher percentage of older people who live longer. But the principal motor for change will be the new technologies that will provide professionals with the tools to do their work better and will change the paradigm of medicine, placing greater emphasis on the prediction and prevention of disease.
According to Pedro Serrano, president of the Spanish Network of Health Technology Assessment Agencies of the National Health System (RedETS in Spanish), “the development of health technologies provides very important additional opportunities so that health professionals can offer patients greater effectiveness and safety, along with an improvement in autonomy and quality of life for the patients.”
Telemedicine and robotics are only some of the advances that are being made in the hospitals of many countries. But there still remains much to do in Spain. Borja Rodríguez, assistant professor in Universidad Europea’s Biomedical Engineering program, says that “while robots may be more spectacular when it comes to making news, we’ll see the greatest advances through an increase in the use of artificial intelligence.” One application of this technology being introduced to the market is the artificial pancreas, a system of automatic control that carries out the functions of this organ to regulate glucose levels in blood in patients with type 1 diabetes. It functions by means of an algorithm that releases insulin into the body when levels are low, and it’s controlled by means of a smartphone.
Medicine and technology will go hand in hand
Another one of the technologies that will bring a big change in the medical sector –and which will be common in hospitals of the future– is Big Data. It has great potential in medicine because it permits the collection, storing, ordering, analysis and consultation of a huge volume of information in a structured, safe way. The result: attention that is more effective, personalized, participative, preventive and predictive. Doctors will be able to use programs to calculate the probability that a disease will appear or progress, carry out early diagnosis, make decisions based on real data… According to Borja Rodríguez, “in the future, if a diagnosis is made or a treatment is undertaken without consulting a system that helps make decisions, medical malpractice will be considered.”
Wearable biosensors are devices capable of maintaining complete control of vital signs, and will have special importance in the future. They can obtain data and monitor patients in real time, whether they are in a hospital or at their own home. It is also believed that they will be fundamental when it comes to detecting ahead of time certain episodes that could endanger a person’s health, for example in the case of epileptics. Knowing the symptoms that precede an epileptic attack, these devices can detect them and warn a patient and his specialist doctor of the danger.
As this professor of Biomedical Engineering expresses it, “medicine is an area that is increasingly dependent upon technology, both for diagnostic tests and for monitoring and follow-up treatment, and it develops to the degree that new advances and solutions are offered. We can be sure that medicine as we know it today will have little to do with the medicine that our grandchildren will know.”
Indeed, some hospitals around the world are already implementing rather innovative technologies. At the Humber River Hospital in Toronto, automated robots move through the corridors to deliver supplies to the staff. And in the Karolinska Hospital in Stockholm, a network of pneumatic tubes connects every point in the hospital, thus speeding up the system and making it possible that a patient can carry out tests and receive a diagnosis in a single day.
Early detection and prevention of sickness
These technological advances will thus be responsible for transforming medicine and facilitating earlier detection and prevention of disease. Doctor Helios Pareja, a researcher at the Doctorate and Research School and a professor in the School of Basic Biomedical Sciences at Universidad Europea, says that “the The will stress primary and secondary prevention, eliminating risk factors before disease appears or in its very early stages, with the aim of stopping its development and consolidation.”
In addition to all the preventive tools, this doctor claims that physical exercise and nutrition will be key factors in this field. “Both strategies have demonstrated, with sufficient scientific evidence, that they are effective in the prevention and therapy of numerous pathologies. Diseases that are susceptible to improvement through physical exercise and the right nutrition are not only those related to metabolism –such as diabetes, obesity and hypertension– but also cardiac irregularities, colon and breast cancer, depression, Alzheimer’s, cystic fibrosis and a long list of other complaints,” he explains. At present, according to data from the Ministry of Education, Culture and Sports, 73% of Spaniards raise their risk of falling ill due to a sedentary lifestyle.
Margarita Pérez Ruiz, professor of Exercise Physiology, believes that in the hospital of the future “sports medicine will work in conjunction with the rehabilitation services to help patients recover. In addition, fitness centers should have trained professionals to apply just the right amount of exercise to improve patients’ physical condition in different sicknesses. In this way, primary care doctors and specialists will be able to refer patients to these centers with the assurance that they will receive the proper treatment.” The professionals will thus work in sync so that patients will get the maximum benefit to health provided by exercise.
The experience of patients in the hospital of the future will be completely different from today because there will be much more personalized attention, dispensed in much more friendly surroundings. Juan José Beunza, professor of Interprofessional Public Health and Education at Universidad Europea, explains that in recent years and “owing to economic and political circumstances, we have placed great emphasis on the economic aspect of healthcare. But we just can’t reduce it to that and forget that we are dealing with patients. We need to bring back the essence of healthcare: the care of people offered by people.”
To achieve this ‘humanization’ in hospitals it will be necessary to make an effort in training the professionals of the future, which should be an important factor that boards of directors should take into account. He adds that “quality is measured not just in survival times but also in humanity.” His idea is that medical centers not just cure and treat disease but focus their attention on caring for people.
Architecture, design and vertical gardens
And as part of that desire to make hospitals more pleasant and adapt them to society’s needs, there must be figures like the ‘social interpreter’ who will promote understanding between health professionals and patients who come from other countries. “Multiculturalism is the order of the day, and in fields like medicine, where there is a lot at stake, it’s essential to have the linguistic support of an expert who can guarantee that communication is fluid, that cultural conventions and norms are respected, and that information be precise so that there are no misunderstandings on either side,” explains doctor Paola Nieto, professor of Interpreting at Universidad Europea.
The hospitals of the future will not neglect architecture and interior design, whose aim will be to produce serenity and make patients feel better. According to José Luis Esteban, professor of the School of Architecture, Engineering and Design, this means there will be smaller buildings that are interconnected, for example by garden areas. Interior lighting will be much closer to natural light, the furniture will be ergonomic, and colors will help maintain the sensation of calm.
He lists the keys to this architecture and design: a closer connection with nature, a more human scale and the use of renewable energies to make hospitals more self-sustaining. He defines them as “garden hospitals” and says that “their influence on the health of patients is spectacularly positive.” Doctors and health professionals know that the surroundings have a decisive effect on the state of mind of patients, and thus on quality and time of recovery. This aspect, which is fundamental in all treatments, is especially important in oncology. Francisco Domouso, director of the department of Design, Art and Digital Contents, and Fabricio Santos, area director in the same department of Universidad Europea, study how to adapt hospital space so as to improve the stay of these cancer patients. They focus their proposals through an overall approach that includes everything from the small scale of buildings to their accessibility.
The hospital at home
Another key aspect of the medicine of the future is home hospitalization, which will allow patients to stay at home while being remotely observed and connected to a hospital thanks to technology. For example, this will permit patients with chronic illnesses to visit medical centers much less. Studies demonstrate that most older, dependent people prefer to be cared for at home. Proximity to family, an ongoing connection with their surroundings, access to their possessions, greater independence…all these things make for psychological and emotional advantages that benefit health and quality of life. Natividad Comes, a nurse and manager of the Masquecuidar firm, explains that “there are studies that demonstrate that recovery is much faster and there are fewer returns to hospital when a person recovers at home.”
According to this expert, such home care is a good response to the challenge of growing old and to the rise in disabling chronic conditions. Likewise, at the start of the 21st century the World Health Organization (WHO) justified home-care as necessary for long-range attention for chronic disease.
To make the home hospital a reality, technological innovation will play an essential role. “Home telemonitoring, or telemedicine –and we’ve already had some experience of this in Spain– makes it possible to follow a patient’s clinical condition in an automated and systematic way,” Natividad Comes explains.
In response to technological advances and people’s needs, medicine and hospitals will undergo a considerable transformation in the coming years, one that will positively affect patients’ health. Medical centers will cease to be cold, impersonal places and become friendly spaces that are in contact with nature and where prevention and innovation are the order of the day. In the end, going to the doctor will be a much more pleasant experience and we will enjoy better health thanks to prevention and improved treatment. The future is very promising.