From the herbs and clay in prehistoric times, to the first display of modern anaesthesia in the mid-nineteenth century, and the first organ transplant in 1954, medical care has improved throughout history.
But with the rapid development of artificial intelligence, and as scientists continue to develop their understanding of disease, humanity is on the cusp of a new medical revolution, a string of experts have told The National.
Hundreds of new innovations were on display at the week-long Arab Health conference in Dubai - one of the largest medical trade fairs in the world - from virtual reality training simulators for operations to robot surgeons.
Rapid advancements mean that even cancer, believed to cause around 10 million deaths per year, will soon a condition that can almost always be managed, Gareth Goodier, who has decades of experience running some of the world’s leading hospital groups, believes.
“I fully expect within the next 10 years cancer will become a chronic disease as HIV has become,” Dr Goodier said. “The reason I’m still engaged in this, when a lot of my peers are retired or taken portfolio careers on boards, is sheer excitement. There are so many exiting things and being connected to the guys that do that, it’s so inspirational.”
As well as treatment of conditions, huge strides are being made in diagnosis. Last year, a large-scale trial into use of breath tests to detect cancers got under way, while further into the future, toilets could make diagnosis of a wide variety to conditions by analysing excrement.
Dr Goodier, now chief executive of Seha, which owns and operates all public hospitals and clinics at Abu Dhabi, said he would have been “amazed” if he had been told as a young physician what doctors could achieve today.
“I’m old — I remember the first CAT scans when they first came out in the early ‘70s,” he said. “We have come so far, so fast, part of the difficulty is being aware of it all.
“Medical knowledge in 1950 was doubling every 50 years, in 1980 it was every seven years. Supposedly, by this year, it’s going to be a matter of months. Why is it doubling so quickly? Largely, it’s because of access to digital clinical information, plus genomic information and machine learning in AI.
“Several things are coming together at this point in science and mankind’s history that does mean we are making huge, rapid progress in understanding disease.”
Another major area of potential is the digitisation of health records. Millions can be analysed potentially offering new insights that can assist with diagnosis and treatment. At Arab Health, it was announced that later this year, Abu Dhabi residents will be given access to their own health records on a smartphone app, a move it is hoped will encourage users to take greater responsibility for their well-being.
Mohie El Rafey, chief strategy officer for GE Healthcare, a medical technology company, said the firm had developed hospital management systems he compared to Nasa mission control centres or an air traffic control tower.
These see real-time data fed to screens, allowing managers to make decisions to ensure hospitals run far more efficiently. For example, if screens show too many patients are waiting to be discharged, managers would be able to investigate the cause of the problem and divert resources to fix it.
Another product is an X-ray machine that can scan images for problems that might require urgent attention, potentially saving lives.
“Usually what happens with chest X-rays, for example, they are captured into the device in a sequential manner,” he said. “Then they are passed on from the technician to the radiologist, who will review then in a sequential manner.
“There could be an X-ray that is captured and requires urgent attention but the fact that there’s all this time lag means you don’t get to the patient at the time you need to give that patient care.
“What we’ve done is create an AI-based algorithm, put it into the device itself, which is able to detect a collapsed lung. So it will prioritise it to the top, alert a technician it is a critical finding, and intervention can happen for the patient when they need it most.
“That’s just one example of how you move from legacy treatment and care to more AI-driven patient-centric care we are helping to improve.”
Patients also likely to see more profound differences in coming years in how they are treated, Homero Rivas, a Professor of Surgery and Associate Dean of Innovation and the Future at the Mohammed Bin Rashid University of Medicine and Healthcare in Dubai, said.
He said more and more consultations will be carried out by online video links, while in some poor countries where communities have no access to healthcare, virtual ‘avatar’ doctors could advise patients.
And while it can give rise to spread of online conspiracy theories and self diagnosis, he believes the opening up of huge amounts of medical information to the masses is a good thing.
“New challenges arise with the internet,” he said. “But overall the wide access to information is an blessing.
“You see videos or posts on Instagram and whatever, and you might be able to identify someone with skin cancer. The fact patients are so informed, it makes them less vulnerable.
“And second guessing someone, even an expert, is always good because it keeps people accountable. Of course, it can give physicians headaches we don’t want, and we complain about it, but in all honesty it’s better.”
More challenges from patients is not the only way in which doctor’s jobs are changing. A digestive and bariatric surgeon, Dr Rivas recalls when intervention meant ‘opening up’ a patient by making large incisions. Now, keyhole surgery is largely carried out, with cameras acting as the surgeon’s eyes.
And with robotics being increasingly used in surgery, the role will continue to evolve.
“We will always have doctors and physicians — they will never go away,” he said. “The ones who will become extinct will be the ones who don’t use AI.
“Things have changed dramatically. At some point, hopefully the way we'll have automated cars we’ll have automated surgery.
“Maybe one day all I’m going to do is just be there to make sure things are being done right. I will just sit down, like Homer Simpson sitting at the nuclear plant, eating doughnuts."