Medicine has come a long way from the early 19th century, when the stethoscope was the most technologically advanced tool in a doctor’s bag. Advances in health-care technology have increased longevity, made once impossible surgeries possible, eradicated some diseases, changed the way doctors monitor and treat patients, and helped reduce the mountains of paperwork that burden the profession. “Medicine has always been information driven,” says Ira Brodsky, author of The History and Future of Medical Technology. “You had to manually collect and analyze this stuff until the computer age.”
In the following slides, we highlight just a few remarkable breakthroughs in medical technology, starting in the 1960s.
Photograph by Simone Casetta / Anzenberger/Redux
Ophthalmologists are among medicine’s early adopters. The first use of a laser on a human patient removed a retinal tumor. The operation was performed at Manhattan’s Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in 1961, according to photonics.com.
Photograph by Alvis Upitis/Brand X Pictures
Electronic Medical Records
About 100 projects to store and retrieve medical records and clinical data were underway by 1965, according to a report prepared by nonprofit MITRE for the National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Research Resources. Unfortunately, these early technologies proved too unreliable for hospital administrators to adopt them widely.
Photograph by Brooks Kraft/Corbis
At St. Luke’s Episcopal Hospital in Houston in 1969, heart surgeon Denton Cooley implanted the first temporary artificial heart in a patient, keeping him alive for nearly three days until a donor was found. In 1982 at the University of Utah Medical Center, Dr. William DeVries put the first permanent artificial heart in a patient. The device cost $16,450.
Photograph by Claudio Onorati/epa/Corbis
Early Digital Imaging
A precursor to modern digital imaging, the first equipment used by doctors produced images of blood vessels. The technique used to create those images—digital subtraction angiography—was developed by researchers at the University of Arizona, according to an article in Imaging Economics, a radiology journal.
Photograph by Siemens syngo iFlow
CT Scanners and MRIs
Advances in chip and computer technology made digital images more sophisticated, providing doctors with a more intricate view of the human body than traditional X-rays offered. CT scanners were first installed in 1974 and the first whole-body MRI scanner was completed in 1977. In some cases, these devices have produced pictures so detailed that doctors discover a better way to perform an operation or find that they do not need to initiate exploratory surgery.
Photograph by Tom Sibley/Gallery Stock
Electronically Controlled Ventilator
Electronically controlled ventilators vastly improved intensive care. In 1971, German medical device maker Maquet introduced the Servo Ventilator 900, one of the first devices that could monitor patients and record data.
Photograph by Servo-i MR Maquet
Implantable Cardioverter Defibrillator
A first cousin to the pacemaker, the implantable cardioverter defibrillator does much more. It monitors and stops dangerous, abnormal heartbeats by delivering an electrical shock to restore a normal rhythm. Over the decades, these devices have become smaller, lighter, programmable, and implantable with less invasive surgery. The first patient received an implantable cardioverter defibrillator in 1980, according to an article in the Netherlands Heart Journal. That was 22 years after the first internal pacemaker went into a patient’s chest.
Photograph by RadioGraphics/Radiological Society of North America
Archiving Electronic Medical Images
The first large-scale image-archive system—which included CT, ultrasound, and a film digitizer for plain film—was installed at the University of Kansas, according to McKesson (MCK), a health care IT company and pharmaceuticals distributor. This technology for displaying and archiving electronic images eventually paved the way for digital images to replace X-ray film.
Photograph by Photograph by Brooks Kraft/Corbis
Genetically Engineered Drugs
In 1982, Genentech introduced the first genetically engineered drug, human insulin, according to the National Human Genome Research Institute. Other genetically engineered drugs that followed include a blood-clotting factor, human growth hormone, molecules for treating certain kinds of leukemia and immune deficiencies, and a hepatitis B vaccine.
Photograph by Alessandro Rizzi/Gallery Stock
The FDA approved the first cochlear implant for use in adults in 1984, according to the National Institutes of Health. The implant processes sounds from the environment and directly stimulates the auditory nerve, helping profoundly deaf or severely impaired patients who can not be helped with hearing aids. By 2009, about 188,000 people worldwide had been fitted with a cochlear implant, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Photograph by Julian Stratenschulte/dpa/Corbis
Digital Ear Thermometer
In 1984, medical device inventor David Philips introduced the FirsTemp Thermometer, an infrared ear thermometer that sold for $795. As touch-free digital thermometers grew more accurate, they have gradually replaced slow-reading mercury thermometers. Around the same period, further basic measuring devices were also digitized, such as weight scales, glucose meters, and blood pressure meters.
Photograph by ballyscanlon/Digital Vision
Robodoc was the first robot to assist in surgery—a hip replacement—in 1992. The surgical robot system was developed by Sacramento (Calif.)-based Integrated Surgical Systems (ISSM) and today costs from $1 million to $2.5 million.
Photograph by Heather Stone/Chicago Tribune/Getty Images
Laser Vision Correction
The FDA approved the first Excimer Laser System for corrective eye surgery in 1995. The initial laser used in LASIK surgery—a slightly different procedure in which a flap is cut in the middle layer of the cornea and folded back—received FDA approval in 1998.
Photograph by Will & Deni Mcintyre/Getty Images
A computer-aided detection device for displaying and interpreting mammograms was first approved by the FDA in 1998. The device converts film mammograms into digital files. Computer software then analyzes the file and marks suspect areas for radiologists to review, along with their own reading of the original film image, according to the National Cancer Institute.
Photograph by Eric Van Den Brulle/The Image Bank
In 1999, German prosthetic manufacturer Otto Bock introduced the C-leg, a microprocessor-controlled prosthetic knee powered by a battery, in the U.S. The device helped patients walk faster and more naturally than traditional prosthetic devices could enable. Companies continue to work on even more sophisticated devices: Otto Bock, for example, is developing a “bionic hand” that uses nerve signals in the arm to pinch and grab.
Photograph by Ottobock HealthCare
Continuous Glucose Monitor
The first commercial continuous glucose monitor was introduced by Medtronic (MDT) in 1999. The system is used to discern trends in patients' blood sugar levels by inserting a sensor under their skin to store up to three days of data. The data from the monitor is used to program an insulin pump that can be worn on a belt. The constant monitoring helps patients better manage their condition.
Courtesy Medtronic, Inc.
The world’s first telesurgery was performed nearly a decade ago. In 2001, two doctors in New York removed the gallbladder of a 68-year-old woman in Strasbourg, France, using the Zeus Telesurgical Robotic System. Looking at a monitor, the doctors commanded tools designed to resemble surgical instruments.The movements, translated as data through fiber optic cable, were mimicked by surgical robots at the operating table in France.
Photograph by Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Wireless Medical Device
CardioNet received FDA clearance for a remote cardiac-monitoring device in 2002. The device automatically and wirelessly transmits arrhythmic signals to the monitoring center. In 2003, the FDA approved the first Bluetooth wireless medical device, the Serial Port Adapter developed by Swedish Bluetooth company ConnectBlue. The device lets operating room equipment communicate, enabling wireless printing of electrocardiograms or transmission of medical images.
Photograph by CardioNet
Wireless Consumer Health Meters
Companies continue to roll out new consumer devices that use Bluetooth or Wi-Fi technology to monitor and transmit data about such things as heart rate, blood pressure, or blood oxygenation. A Bluetooth scale, for example, can record and transmit a user’s weight to a mobile device or health-management program.
Photograph by Tanita
Personal Health Records
To address rising consumer interest in personal health information, Microsoft (MSFT) launched HealthVault in 2007. The online system allowed doctors and hospitals to send such information as prescriptions or test results into a patient’s HealthVault account. It also let patients enter some of their own data. Other companies have tried to compete, with mixed results. Google (GOOG), for example, introduced Google Health in 2008, only to discontinue it in January 2012. (User data can be transferred to other services, such as HealthVault.)
Photograph by Clerkenwell/The Agency Collection
The FDA approved the first mobile medical app in 2009, according to Harry Wang, director of health and mobile product research at Parks Associates. AirStrip OB, a mobile application developed by AirStrip Technologies, allowed obstetricians to remotely access real-time and historical data for a mother and baby, including heart tracings and contraction patterns. Today the iTunes store contains about 4,780 medical apps, from pharmaceutical reference books to baby-care logs for parents. While developers are busy launching new apps, many are not considered medical devices. FDA spokesperson Erica Jefferson says the agency has only cleared “a handful of apps.”