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Week 7—13
May 2018

MKW18 7—13 May

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Courage Against The Machine: New Medical Technology Tackles Fear Head-On

Published Thu 26 April | by Elizabeth Flux

There are usually two scenarios that come to mind when people are asked to imagine medical technology. The first is the familiar: machines with long leads that beep and whirr, bright metal and dull plastic, screens showing jagged lines and graphs. The second is the fantastical, inspired by science fiction: the robot doctors and prosthetic limbs of Star Wars; the cyborg technology of Robocop; the machine from The Fifth Element that can rebuild a human being from just a few cells recovered from a damaged spaceship.

What we don’t normally consider is the mundane, the everyday. We are perhaps even less likely to imagine how beauty and desire might play a part in medical technology; objects and machines that are not only functional, but which have aesthetic value in their own right.

Giving something the tag ‘medical’ automatically attaches a whole lot of baggage. As human beings, it’s natural we are wary of illness and mortality – we are both hard-wired and socially conditioned for self-preservation. Though it is somewhat ironic, it makes sense then that new technology associated with health and sickness can come with stigma and suspicion, causing reservations that may ultimately prevent us from embracing the technology developed to improve our quality of life.

When thinking about advances in healthcare treatment it makes sense to think of impressive machines doing never-before imagined things – but what use is a whizz-bang technology or a revolutionary procedure if people are too worried, hesitant or otherwise reluctant to adopt it?

For a long time, medical technology has been purely utilitarian; our focus has, first and foremost, been on physical health. This was the case back when trepanning was commonly used (knocking holes in a person’s skull to let out blood and/or evil spirits), and it still applies today with heart monitors and ECGs. So long as it works, who cares if it’s a bit bulky, ugly or fiddly?

Technology is improving at an almost unprecedented rate and moving in directions that were once unimaginable. There are robots performing surgery as the doctor stands aside, and bionic limbs have moved from science fiction to reality. At the same time, our ability to access information has increased, and we are much more informed and involved in decision-making about our own healthcare than we were in the past. Melbourne Knowledge Week’s Future Hospital event takes a look at where things are heading and queries how we might address some of the gaps and fears that are currently impacting our relationship with medicine and health interventions. Amidst an immersive theatre experience, a live experiment and panel discussions, there will also be a technology showcase allowing attendees to see a cross-section of the kinds of innovations that already exist but are yet to be widespread.

A picture of Leah Heiss' Smart Heart Necklace, designed for patients who have recently suffered a heart attack or who are experiencing heart rhythm problems. It is a piece of geometric silver jewellery.

Leah Heiss’ Smart Heart Necklace is designed for patients who have recently suffered a heart attack or who are experiencing heart rhythm problems.

Leah Heiss makes wearable medical monitoring devices that are both functional and beautiful. One of the items she’ll be showcasing is the Smart Heart necklace. Looking at it, you wouldn’t know it is also a heart monitor, a device which usually involves multiple electrodes stuck to the body and a hefty monitor hanging off a lanyard. ‘Smart Heart was developed between RMIT, Saint Vincent’s hospital and the Nossal Institute for Global Health,’ Heiss explains. ‘It’s really trying to move away from a very uncomfortable and clunky technology.’

The result is something that looks like an elegant statement necklace, with a soft woven band hiding all the electronic infrastructure, and a modular, jewel-like design around the front that houses the batteries and the CPU. ‘The central idea behind that is about de-stigmatising medical technology,’ says Heiss.

Mark Chatterton works at inGenious AI, a company that specialises in designing chatbots. They are showcasing a new chatbot at Future Hospital that was created to support patients in the lead-up to surgery, with a focus on empathy and keeping patients informed. Chatterton explains how the aim of the chatbot is to supplement current infrastructure. ‘AI currently can’t identify emotions, whereas medical professionals would be able to identify a nervous, angry, or unsure patient, and may act differently towards the patient in response. That being said, chatbots are great to use as an interactive instructional process, which allows patients to asks questions without fear of being judged by the medical staff for asking “silly” questions.’ They are also available around the clock, which means patients’ questions aren’t limited to business hours, and they can be used in multiple languages.

Patient care beyond the operating theatre is the focus of Dr Vincent Crocher’s work – at Future Hospital he will be showcasing Recubit, a ‘robotic therapy aid that is designed to empower therapists to be able to provide more therapy to their patients, primarily victims of stroke or other brain injuries.’ Crocher describes it as ‘an intelligent smart arm’ which will supplement rehabilitation therapy by taking the weight-bearing elements of rehabilitation away from the therapist, ‘freeing them to focus on other important aspects such as the shoulder and the shape of the movements.’ Asked about the idea of fear or stigma associated with using robotics and healthcare, Crocher acknowledges the potential impact of this, however is positive in his outlook: ‘we believe that as more and more robotic devices are used by and with healthcare professionals, the industry will become more accustomed to their presence. We believe that fear in this instance is simply fear of the unknown.’

The ‘Recubit’ is a robotic therapy aid designed to empower therapists to be able to provide more therapy to their patients, primarily victims of stroke or other brain injuries.

As medical technology continues to evolve, so too do our attitudes. Even if we do end up developing that human re-building machine from The Fifth Element, the future of medical technology won’t lie in machines that beep louder or have more chrome than ever before – they’ll lie in the things that narrow the gap between real life and health interventions; the things that help strip away the long-associated fears and stigma.

Patient needs are diverse and complex. The technology that will have the most impact on improving patient outcomes is that which recognises this. It’s the heart monitor you can wear without prompting queries about your health; it’s the opportunity to ask questions from the comfort of home without fear or stress; it’s robots taking on some of the grunt work so that patients get more quality time with therapists, and rehabilitation becomes more streamlined and personal.

As factors beyond the purely functional are being woven more and more into both treatment options and devices, there is cause to be hopeful; that medicine and treatment don’t need to be daunting, and that continued focus on the patient experience will bring healthcare more in line with everyday life. 

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