Technology has helped scientists, researchers and doctors to make some incredible medical breakthroughs. Here are just some of the developments that will soon be transforming our health – and life – as we know it…
The pill-sized pacemaker
Pacemakers have been around since the 1960s and are a vital way to fix potentially fatal abnormal heart rhythms for the 25,000 people a year who have one fitted. But this involves an invasive procedure under local anesthetic, where a matchbox-sized device with wires is connected to your heart, and there can be serious complications if these become infected. The development, then, of miniature and wireless pacemakers is a real breakthrough. “With no wires, there’s far less chance of infection,” explains Dr Mike Knapton, associate medical director at the British Heart Foundation. “And surgery (under local anaesthetic) is minimally invasive as the tiny, pill-sized device is implanted into the heart via the femoral vein using a catheter. Clinical trials are underway around the world, but I’d expect to see this revolutionary product adopted as the norm very soon.”
The new solution for high cholesterol
There’s fresh hope on the horizon for anyone with raised LDL or “bad” cholesterol. A new class of drugs, PCSK9 inhibitors, were recently approved and are now available from your GP. They work by blocking the gene PCSK9, which regulates the uptake of LDL cholesterol out of the blood stream. In recent trials, patients with raised LDL had their levels reduced by 50 per cent over and above that produced by statins. “There’s real potential for these drugs to reduce risk of heart attack or stroke caused by heart disease and high cholesterol,” says Heart UK trustee Dr Robert Cramb. “They’ll benefit anyone with familial hypercholesterolaemia, where people are born with high levels of cholesterol. They also offer hope to people who’ve had a stroke or heart attack and still have increased cholesterol levels.”
For more information, visit Heart UK, The Cholesterol Charity at heartuk.org.uk
‘Virtual’ GP appointments
Could seeing your GP soon be as easy as logging into Skype? Recent YouGov research found 3.3 million people are putting their health at risk by missing GP appointments, mainly due to work commitments. Thankfully, new models for delivering primary care are evolving.
“It’s amazing how much you can achieve without a physical examination,” says Dr Chris Tomkins, Head of Proactive Health for AXA PPP Healthcare. “‘Telehealth’ means patients can show physical symptoms via video or photos and if further investigation is needed, they’re referred to the surgery. Patients and doctors alike are busy and this takes the workload off the traditional system.”
Many NHS GPs are already on board but private schemes abound, such as the Doctor@Hand service, offered by AXA PPP Healthcare. For £240 a year, you get access to 20-minute GP appointments when you need them, via your phone or computer.
The blood ‘sieve’
If you ever suffer a blood-borne disease one new technology – magnetic blood filtration – may revolutionise the way you’re treated. Developed to treat malaria, with potential for treating other blood diseases in the future, it works in a similar way to dialysis, creating an external loop to circulate your blood, filter it, then return healthy blood to your body. Infected malaria cells are magnetic and captured in the magnetic filter, called a MediSieve. Invented by biochemical engineer Dr George Frodsham of University College London, the MediSieve could remove 90 per cent of a child’s infection of malaria in just three and a half hours. Human trials of MediSieve are taking place this year and, all being well, we’ll soon see it used alongside or instead of existing drug treatment for severe or drug-resistant malaria – and other blood diseases thereafter.
All your pills, delivered free
If you’re one of 14.6 million people in the UK on multiple repeat medications – or you’re worried about a relative who is – here’s an innovation to put your mind at rest.
PillTime is a free service, which delivers all your medications to your door, pre-packed by pharmacists. It comes in daily pouches, clearly labelled with what time each dose is due. “PillTime is one of the most significant advances in healthcare I’ve seen,” says GP Dr Hilary Jones, medical advisor to the service. “Fifty per cent of people don’t take their medication correctly and this can lead to avoidable but sometimes serious problems. This is a reliable way to ensure proper adherence.”
Already used by some NHS GPs, it’s predicted PillTime will be handling prescriptions for over 12,000 patients a month by the end of 2017. Visit pilltime.co.uk to see if your surgery’s participating and sign up (if they’re not, you can post prescriptions to PillTime for dispensing).
The new e-therapy
Are you or is someone you love experiencing depression or anxiety? “The waiting time for counselling on the NHS can be up to two years,” says Sarah Bateup, clinical programme director of Ieso Digital Health. The Government has promised to increase access to services by 35 per cent by 2021, but how? New online therapy is leading the way. Ieso Digital Health connects patients with therapists in real time with an instant messaging service. “It’s a discreet, one-to-one therapy, given at a time that works for the patient,” explains Bateup. It’s a cost-effective solution for the NHS, where it’s already in use in some areas. Type your postcode in at iesohealth.com to find out if your area is covered. Then you can self-refer online or see your GP. “If your area isn’t yet offering it, register your interest with your GP, as supply meets demand,” adds Bateup.
On the horizon: editing out disease
DNA manipulation sounds scarily sci-fi, but its power to do good should outweigh your fears. Essentially, it means introducing new DNA to a patient with a genetic disease, to correct mutated genes. “Advances in DNA-editing technology have meant that scientists are now beginning to unlock the potential of this technique in cancer treatment, such as turning a patient’s own cells into cancer-seeking weapon,” says Dr Justine Alford, Cancer Research UK’s senior science information officer. “Although gene therapy is still experimental, clinical trials are starting to show encouraging results.”