Medicine is heavily dependent on new technologies, whether it’s a new type of blood test or a new drug molecule that performs better than its counterparts. The progress of medicine can be measured by landmark technological innovations. There have been a handful of discoveries which didn’t just advance the field of medicine, but which fundamentally changed the way that medicine was practiced from that point onwards. I thought that I would examine a list of five of these discoveries and discuss their origins as well as their effects on the medical field.
Coming in at #5: the disposable plastic syringe. Developed in 1974, the disposable syringe did away with the lengthy disinfectant procedures required for the old, all-glass syringes. The plastic syringes arrive packed in a sterile wrapper, and are simply thrown away after a single use. The plastic syringes are also more air and gas-tight than all-glass syringes, and so doses can be measured and delivered more precisely and more accurately. Given that so many diseases (Hep C, HIV) are known to be spread through contaminated needles, the development and widespread use of plastic syringes has made dramatic strides in the fight against infectious diseases. It was a very simple technology to develop, but it has had immense significance for medicine.
At #4 on the list: MRIs (Magnetic Resonance Imaging). An MRI uses powerful electromagnets and radio waves to image and visualize the protons in the water molecules present inside a patient. Water in different environments gives a different contrast, and so MRIs are a way of monitoring – even in real time – the blood flow to different tissues as well as the different types of tissue present inside the patients body. Modern medicine has become extremely dependent on MRI scans, as it is almost beyond compare in terms of diagnostic instrumentation. All manner of diseases can be diagnosed by an MRI scan, which is painless and noninvasive. One interesting piece of trivia: a more accurate description of MRI technology is “NMR”, which is the acronym that chemists use: “Nuclear Magnetic Resonance”. It’s more descriptive and a more accurate description of the process. However, the developers of the first MRI scanners were afraid that patients would be fearful of a test with “nuclear” in the title and would decline to be scanned. It’s incredibly silly, as there is no nuclear radiation involved (the nucleus refers to the behavior of the atomic nuclei in the magnetic field), but the name was changed in any case. MRI scans are very powerful and a centerpiece to modern medicine.
#3: X-ray imaging. X-rays have been around since the dawn of time; they’re simply high-powered waves of electromagnetic radiation. Their use in the medical arena began in the late 1890s, when a physicist noticed that a lump of uranium ore he had stored in a drawer on top of a piece of photographic film was somehow affecting the film, blotching it with spots. It didn’t take long to progress to using these mysterious “X-rays” being emitted by the radioactive uranium to take pictures of patients bones, simply by placing their hand or foot inbetween the uranium and the blank film. The ability to visualize bone spurs, breaks, and abnormal growth patterns gave doctors a wondrous new tool for treating wounds. X-ray scans are commonplace these days, due to their great power in diagnostics.
#2: Vaccines. This technology is over 250 years old at this point, but it’s still being used in its purest form. By introducing a very weakened strain of a foreign pathogen into a healthy patient, the patients immune system goes into overdrive and generates defenses against the disease. The vaccine (the weakened strain) isn’t strong enough to actually make the patient seriously sick, but it provokes enough of a response from the body that when a full-strength strain does come along in the future, the body is able to mount an adequate defense. It’s impossible to even estimate how many lives this discovery has saved, and to say that it changed the face of medicine is almost an understatement. Millions upon millions of people have been saved by this technology, earning it a solid place on this list.
And finally, at #1 on my list of medical technological innovations: Anesthesia, the process of blocking pain signals for patients undergoing surgery. This was one of the first medical innovations in our history, having its roots as far back as 4000 BC. However, it remains one of the most important. The ability to alleviate the suffering of a patient not only made all surgeries more humane, it also made many surgeries that were previously impossible a simple exercise. Before the widespread use of safe anesthesia, many patients would simply die during surgery as the result of shock. Those that survived were usually disfigured, as surgeons couldn’t spare a single second on making the incisions as cosmetically pleasing as possible – their only concern was performing the procedure as fast as possible, before the patient went into cardiac arrest and died. It’s safe to say that anesthesia is the most important innovation on this list, and it’s difficult to imagine modern medicinal practice without the use of anesthesia.
That concludes my list of 5 medical technologies which have been wide-spread enough to change the face of medicine. New discoveries continue to be made every hour of every day, and I for one am excited to see what the future brings.