Medical advances: Future trends

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Part of Time to Think Differently

Here we review some of the key areas for medical advances over the next 20 years, including pharmaceutical and surgical innovation and regenerative medicine. Technological advances are explored in our information technology pages.

Key messages

  • Pharmaceutical innovation could provide new treatment for common diseases
    Innovation in drug discovery, genetics, biotechnology, material sciences and bioinformatics has already improved treatments for conditions such as HIV, cancer and heart disease and offers hope of better treatments for neurodegenerative diseases.
  • Advances in diagnostics, devices and robotics could improve outcomes
    Developments in diagnostics and drug delivery could reduce drug errors, increase compliance and improve efficacy.
  • Precision medicine could revolutionise our ability to predict, preventand treat a range of conditions
    Low-cost genetic sequencing, genome mapping, biomarker tests, and targeted drugs and treatments will enable professionals to provide tailored health information and create personalised treatments to improve patient outcomes.
  • Regenerative medicine shows potential but wide-scale benefits remain elusive
    Despite advances in stem cell transplantation, cell reprogramming and synthetic and artificial organs, effective and safe regenerative therapies remain elusive and expensive and have yet to be realised on a wide scale.
  • Technological advances could transform interactions between professionals and patients
    Professionals can already hold consultations with, monitor and deliver care to patients at home using home-based remote technologies and video conferencing. This trend is likely to continue. In the future, medical 'apps' for mobile phones will also allow patients to access their medical records, make appointments and seek personalised health information and support.
  • Budget constraints may limit the ability of the NHS to support and benefit from medical innovation
    There is a real risk that medical advances could fuel demand for care. Innovations can extend the range of patients eligible for treatment, and so increase  overall activity.

Key uncertainties

Uncertainties about the nature and speed of medical advances could impact on the trends in health and social care. For example, in the past forecasts have been over-optimistic about xeno-transplantation and gene therapy, while underestimating the speed and impact of breakthroughs in CT scanning and minimally invasive surgery.

  • Interplay between technology, evidence and affordability
    Budgetary constraints could act as a major barrier in the adoption of new medical technologies. However, a more evidence-based approach targeting resources at interventions which have the greatest benefit could release resources for investment elsewhere.
  • Rate of adoption
    Rates of adoption of new medical technologies can be highly variable. Uptake can be particularly slow if it requires a new pathway of care to support it, such as in telecare.
  • Technological interdependencies
    Biomarkers may have the potential to enable clinicians to diagnose and treat conditions much more effectively, tailoring therapies to the individual. However, this technology is heavily reliant upon advances in other fields, including molecular biology and genomics. This type of interdependency could affect the rate at which developments move into clinical use.

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