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Like it or not, our world is constantly changing, as technological advances grow ever more frequent. While some folks may lament the loss of seemingly simpler days past, the fact remains that companies around the globe are working hard to make a positive impact on the the way we live.
To be sure, in few industries are these changes more apparent than health care, where our very lives are often at stake. Here are three disruptive technologies, then, which are in the process of effectively reshaping health care as we know it:
Your health is in the cloud(s)
First of all, health care companies are currently taking advantage of cloud computing in ways we could have never dreamed only a few decades ago.
Take athenahealth (NASDAQ: ATHN ) , for instance, which focuses entirely on developing cloud-based tools for streamlining medical practice management, electronic health records, patient communications, care coordination, and account collection.
Unsurprisingly, demand for its services is strong, as athenahealth currently boasts nearly 41,000 medical providers on its network, up from around 38,000 in January. As a result, athenahealth ranked fourth on Forbes' list of America's 25 fastest-growing tech companies in 2012, following 13 straight years of achieving at least 30% top-line growth.
Or consider Amazon.com (NASDAQ: AMZN ) , which published a white paper last year outlining how health-care companies can take advantage of Amazon Web Services "to power information processing systems that facilitate HIPAA and HITECH compliance."
Incidentally, Amazon not only uses AWS to power its own web properties and handle traffic for sites including Netflix, Yelp, reddit, and Pinterest, but also currently counts at least a dozen different health-related organizations among its list of AWS clients. Most notably, these include CloudPrime, Global Data Systems, Nimbus Health, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, Pfizer, the Praekelt Foundation, Toshiba Medical, Harvard Medical School, NYU Langone Medical Center, and Sage Bionetworks.
Any time, any place
Next, where would cloud computing be without the meteoric rise of mobile apps?
Remember, in March, athenahealth also finalized its $293 million acquisition of mobile health pioneer Epocrates, whose point-of-care mobile app has been downloaded by more than a million health-care professionals for their iPhones, iPads, Android, or BlackBerry devices.
Of course, Epocrates isn't without competition: WebMD's (NASDAQ: WBMD ) own Medscape app has also been downloaded more than 3 million times and, according to Medscape, is now used by half of all U.S. physicians, and three out of four U.S. medical students.
In addition, like Epocrates, WebMD offers a variety of other mobile applications focusing on general health, pregnancy and child care, allergies, and chronic pain management.
From an investment perspective, shares of WebMD shot up by as much as 20% in a single day last month after the company crushed analysts' estimates for both revenue and earnings per share, largely thanks to a strong showing from its public portal ads and sponsorships. Sure enough, WebMD took the opportunity to highlight the fact that more than a third of all page views are now originating from its mobile sources.
Domo arigato, medical roboto
Finally, and now more than ever, the field of robotics is also accelerating its march into health care.
Remember, just last month, shares of iRobot (NASDAQ: IRBT ) climbed after the company told investors its RP-VITA telepresence robots are gaining traction more quickly than anyone had anticipated. At the time, less than four months after the RP-VITA received FDA clearance to be used in hospital environments, seven hospitals across the U.S. and Mexico had already incorporated the robot into their day-to-day operations.
Outfitted with a variety of specialized medical equipment from iRobot partner InTouch Health, RP-VITA can be controlled remotely through an easy-to-use iPad interface, allowing it to autonomously navigate the crowded corridors of hospitals to any room in the building. Once it's there, RP-VITA allows physicians to remotely handle situations including stroke, intensive care, psychiatry, newborn care, and pediatrics.
Heck, hospital staff can even use RP-VITA to quickly contact family members and other physicians to help make informed medical decisions or authorize emergency treatment:
But, while iRobot is focusing on hospital bedside care, other robotics companies like Intuitive Surgical and MAKO Surgical (UNKNOWN: MAKO.DL ) are commanding a place in the operating room.
On one hand, Intuitive has grown into a nearly $20-billion company by selling more than 2,700 of its da Vinci robots to date, which helped surgeons perform more than 450,000 soft tissue procedures last year alone. The da Vinci bot, in large part, owes much of its success to the fact that it enables surgeons to treat literally dozens of different life-threatening conditions by performing prostatectomy, hysterectomy, colorectal, cardiac, thoracic, and head and neck procedures.
The currently unprofitable MAKO Surgical, on the other hand, has sold only 161 of its own RIO robots to date, with which orthopedic surgeons last year performed a comparatively minuscule 10,204 partial knee and total hip replacements.
Even so, remember that represents an impressive 47% increase over the number of procedures performed in 2011, and MAKO's current rate of cash burn indicates it should still have plenty of funds to hold it over while it continues its stubborn march toward profitability. Considering MAKO Surgical has also indicated it will eventually add new procedures to its wheelhouse, it could quite possibly still prove itself the multi-bagger that so many investors have long waited for.
Foolish final thoughts
In the end, though, whether through robotics, mobile devices, or cloud computing, each of the companies above are striving to change the world by reshaping health care as we know it. At the very least, then, consider adding them to your watchlist to keep tabs on what they're up to.
Rising health-care costs continue to be a hotly debated topic, and even legendary investor Warren Buffett called this trend "the tapeworm that's eating at American competitiveness." To learn more about what's happening to the health-care system -- and how to potentially profit from this trend -- click here for free, immediate access.