Cutting-edge technology could reshape healthcare over the coming 10-20 years, in the process curbing runaway spending and improving the lives of millions of patients. Which technologies might move the needle most? Three Motley Fool analysts offer insight into what they believe could have a transformative effect on the sector.
Leo Sun: One fascinating healthcare field to watch over the next few decades is prosthetic limb technology. Touch Bionics and Ottobock are among the companies that manufacture and install cutting-edge robotic hands and legs that can greatly improve quality of life for amputees.
Touch Bionics' i-limb hand reads electrical signals from a patient's remaining limb to control the hand's movements. Whereas these readings once could produce only a single grip pattern, the i-limb lets an amputee move all five fingers, allowing him or her to dial the phone or even type. Ottobock's C-Leg, which uses sensors to make real-time adjustments in the prosthetic knee and leg, lets amputees run and ride bicycles.
Meanwhile, a stretchable synthetic skin from a team of South Korean researchers could one day help amputees regain their sense of touch via ultra-thin "nano-wires." The skin, which must be connected to a patient's central nervous system, is still undergoing animal testing.
Looking even further ahead, scientists could eventually print out fully organic limbs. Last July, scientists at the University of Nottingham in England printed out "bones" by feeding the polymer polylactic acid and gel-like alginate through a 3D printer. The printer then coated the "bone" with adult stem cells, which could grow into tissue and muscle.
Combining all of these technologies could produce a huge leap forward in prosthetics, and allow doctors to seamlessly rebuild amputees' missing limbs.
Todd Campbell: Tackling the global spread of diabetes won't be easy, but technological advances such as next-generation glucose monitors could be a good place to start.
The number of people diagnosed with diabetes is set to soar from 365 million today to 552 million worldwide by 2030, and that will put significant pressure on the global healthcare system. According to a 2010 study from the International Diabetes Federation, global spending on diabetes will reach $490 billion per year in 2030. More important, the rising prevalence of diabetes means millions more people are likely to die from the disease. According to the American Diabetes Association, diabetes was the cause or a contributing cause in more than 234,000 deaths in the United States in 2010.
If we hope to halt or reverse those numbers, we'll need to approach patient care more holistically, and that could mean looking beyond drug therapies toward Dexcom's (NASDAQ:DXCM) continuous glucose monitoring sensors. Those sensors track and trend glucose levels, and alert patients when levels reach certain levels. By more accurately monitoring and treating these levels, patients might delay disease progression. That, in fact, could already be happening. Dexcom's sales jumped 60% in the past year to $68 million in the third quarter. But there's much work still to be done. Industry watchers estimate less than half of type 1 diabetics and an even smaller percentage of type 2 patients use monitors or insulin pumps to manage their disease.
Dan Dzombak: One healthcare technology that is set to transform our lives over the next 10-20 years is vastly cheaper blood testing.
Currently, traditional lab tests are handled by laboratory diagnostic companies such as Laboratory Corp. of America (NYSE:LH) and Quest Diagnostics (NYSE:DGX). These companies use expensive, older technology to turn around blood samples in a few days -- at relatively high cost, as vials need to be transported to central testing centers.
Theranos, a private company, has developed a far less expensive lab test and charges at least 50% less than regular Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement rates. Theranos' test results are also turned around in hours rather than days and are less invasive, requiring just a prick of blood rather than a whole vial.
As the company's mission states, "Theranos is on a mission to make actionable health information accessible to people everywhere in the world at the time it matters, enabling early detection and intervention of disease, and empowering individuals with information to live the lives they want to live"
With significantly cheaper costs and easier access, blood tests could be conducted far more often to check for warning signs of diseases that currently are only screened for once every year or two. Catching diseases early generally lowers the cost of care and eases the difficulty of treatment.
While it will be a few years before the technology rolls out across the country, Theranos has teamed up with Walgreen (NASDAQ:WBA) to launch testing centers, starting in California and Arizona and hopefully expanding to all of Walgreen's 8,100 drug stores.
Dan Dzombak has no position in any stocks mentioned. Leo Sun has no position in any stocks mentioned. Todd Campbell is long Dexcom. The Motley Fool recommends Quest Diagnostics. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.