Medical technology includes the procedures and equipment by which medical care is delivered. It has affected many medical fields. A prime example is the treatment of heart disease. Each decade from the 1970s to the present has seen successive treatment improvements:
- The 1970s introduced cardiac care units, lidocaine for irregular heartbeat, beta-blockers for lowering blood pressure, clot busters, and coronary artery bypass surgery.
- In the 1980s, there was increased use of blood-thinning agents and minimally invasive surgery.
- The 1990s saw drugs that were effective in inhibiting the formation of clots, stents to keep vessels open, and the implantation of defibrillators for irregular heartbeats.
- Since then, better tests for diagnosis are available, drug-eluting stents are in common use, and new drug strategies are centered on cholesterol-lowering statins.
Many doctors have replaced their stethoscopes with inexpensive, hand-held ultrasound scanners to detect heart problems. In the past, emergency room doctors had trouble distinguishing between bouts of heart failure and pneumonia. Now they have a blood test for B-type Natriuretic Peptide (BNP) secreted by a weakened heart muscle, which enables them to distinguish between these maladies. Although heart disease remains the leading cause of death in the U.S., overall mortality rates have fallen by almost half.
Another example of advances in technology that have changed outcomes is the treatment of preterm babies. In the 1950s, little could be done for them. However, by 1990, there were special ventilators, artificial pulmonary surfactants, and new methods of intensive care, which helped decrease mortality to a third of 1950s levels.
Surgery, too, has seen tremendous improvements. Advances have been made in surgical procedures such as angioplasty and in hip and joint replacements. Microwave scalpels equipped with lasers are replacing metal scalpels. Less invasive laparoscopic techniques have become common. Devices like MRIs and CT scanners are used commonly today. Enhanced electronic medical records systems now exist, facilitating the recording and transfer of information.
For humans with severed bones and defective hearts and lungs, bioelectricity has the potential to speed healing rates. Nerves, muscles, and glands can be stimulated to promote, repair, and restore healthy functioning, and the technique can be used as an alternative to addictive painkillers.
On the horizon are devices to provide individuals with instant health information and allow them to continuously monitor their health status. Blood sugar can be checked, sleep patterns analyzed, and people empowered with the tools to personalize their treatments and behavior on a real-time basis. Despite the advances in technology, their spread is often halted and takes longer than expected. Chapter 7 discusses the potential for finding a cure for Alzheimer’s and reversing aging. The next chapter shows how hard it is to fully commercialize some of these technologies. Not all innovations are instantaneously and fully adopted, as illustrated by the story of cochlear implants.