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ancient prosthetic toe

Tech Throwback Thursday: Healthcare technology through the ages

April 09, 2015
By Kelly Cooper


Circa 1000 B.C., a woman’s gangrenous toe is removed in surgery. The toe’s replacement? Three pieces of carved wood fitted onto her foot with leather straps, making it the world’s oldest known prosthesis.

For over 3,000 years, humans have turned to technology to understand or improve our health. While some innovations happened by accident (e.g., the pacemaker ) and others after years of research and collaboration, the drive to find new and innovative ways to enhance our physical capabilities and wellness has remained constant.

In honor of the upcoming HIMSS15 conference in Chicago—where the future of healthcare and technology will take the main stage—we’re dedicating this edition of Throwback Thursday to five historic healthcare technology innovations that still affect our daily lives today.

1. Exoskeleton (full-body)

In 1890 Russian Nicholas Yagin was granted a patent for an exoskeleton, designed to improve the running abilities of Russian soldiers. Modern exoskeletons (i.e., movable machines integrated with human movement) were first developed by scientists from GE and the U.S. military in the 1960s.

Lasting impact: Since then, many exoskeleton projects have been developed to help the disabled—particularly those with spinal injuries—walk and climb stairs. Much like Yagin’s original invention, today researchers at Carnegie Mellon University are looking to leverage exoskeleton technology to improve the efficiency of able-bodied folks. The team is developing a boot-like device that literally takes a load (akin to about 10 pounds) off people who spend all day on their feet, such as nurses.

Other notable healthcare technology throwbacks from 1890: Nothing, really! A boatload of historical research suggests 1890 may have been the least interesting year ever. But brace yourself, 1893 follows close on its heels with the dawn of …

2. ICD  

In 1893, at a meeting of the International Statistical Institute in Chicago (home to HIMSS15!), Dr. Jacques Bertillon introduced the Bertillon Classification of Causes of Death. The system was based on distinguishing between general diseases and those affecting a particular anatomical site. With the sixth revision of the Bertillon system, it was renamed the ICD (International Statistical Classification of Diseases, Injuries and Causes of Death).

Lasting impact: Bertillon’s original presentation consisted of three lists containing 44, 99 and 161 conditions each. The current version, ICD-10, finalized in 1990, contains more than 87,000 procedure codes—which is 19 times as many as ICD-9. The change from numeric to alphanumeric codes, and hence the implications for system interoperability, has made this ICD update particularly complex, prompting the U.S. to delay the adoption deadline several times to its current date of Oct. 15, 2015.

Other notable throwbacks from 1893: Shockingly, Bertillon’s Classification of Causes of Death presentation was not even the most famous debut in Chicago that year. The 1893 Chicago World’s Fair introduced the world to the zipper, the Ferris Wheel and brownies.

3. Electronic Medical Records (EMRs)

EMRs are thought to have started with Lawrence Weed, a physician who first described the concept in the 1960s. As early as 1962, Akron Children's Hospital, with help from IBM, had an electronic system in place to process nursing operations. EMRs continued to develop throughout the 1960s, and by 1967 the University of Vermont's PROMIS project and Latter Day Saints Hospital’s HELP system debuted as early examples.

Lasting impact: Healthcare providers continue to struggle to implement, optimize and leverage EMRs/EHRs to improve delivery of patient care, record keeping and information sharing with external providers and payers.   

Other notable throwbacks from 1967: The year that saw the Summer of Love, as well as the first Super Bowl, also ushered in another major breakthrough in healthcare—the first human heart transplant.

4. CT Scanner

Computed tomography (CT) uses computer-processed X-rays to produce virtual slices of a scanned object, allowing technicians to look inside the body without surgery. Godfrey Hounsfield invented the first commercially viable CT scanner in 1967, and the first patient bran scan was performed in 1971.

Lasting impact: According to the American College of Radiology, approximately 68 million CT scans are performed in the U.S. each year. Recent devices are able to collect data from the scan, enabling healthcare and technology companies, such as the Big Data collaboration between Johns Hopkins Medicine and Toshiba, to analyze the data collected from patients to understand trends in demographic populations and leverage that analysis to improve care, reduce healthcare costs and increase healthcare efficiency.

Other notable throwbacks from 1971: Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) was also invented in 1971.

5. Robotic-assisted surgery

Arthrobot was the first surgical robot used in orthopedic procedure at UBC Hospital in Vancouver in 1984. Within a year the robot completed more than 60 surgical procedures. Since 2000 the da Vinci Surgical System has assisted doctors in over a million surgeries. The first unassisted robotic surgical procedure occurred in Milan in 2006.

Lasting impact: Robotics continues to be a hot—and debated—topic across many industries. Google recently partnered with Ethicon (a Johnson & Johnson company) to work on robotic-assisted surgeries to help equip surgeons with the best technology so they can make the best decisions and experience the best possible outcome. Robotic-assisted surgeries are typically minimally invasive procedures, which lead to less pain, scarring and time in the hospital … a plus for providers, payers and patients.

Other notable throwbacks from 1984: You may remember another famous robot making its debut in 1984.

Interested in seeing what the future of healthcare IT holds? Follow the conversation with #HIMSS15 April 13-16. And if you’re attending this year’s event, be sure to stop by and say hello to TEKsystems at booth No. 4417 in the South Hall.


Photo credit: Jon Bodsworth

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