By Alex Card
Wriggling leeches and reckless bloodletting. Hook-beaked plague masks and eldritch talismans. Barber-surgeons wielding rusted tools—and not a drop of antiseptic or anesthetic in sight.
It wasn’t so long ago that healthcare resembled a horror movie: Healers practiced on the desperate, experimental, and often gruesome frontiers of medicine, where science and superstition swirled in the shadows.
These early practitioners were working toward the same commendable goals as modern healthcare professionals—curing disease, mending wounds, delivering comfort—but without the illumination of modern science and information sharing. Through the dark of the distant past, their efforts might look to us like butchery or barbarism; of course, these folks were just working with what they had.
In this more “enlightened” age, the medical landscape may be better lit, but it’s still home to some strange, surprising, and downright spooky stories.
Gather round, ravenous readers, and feast your eyes on the most macabre medical industry developments of the past year.
1. Ghosts in the machine: Data breaches devastate healthcare
Tales of otherworldly possessions and diabolical doppelgangers play on the fear of our very identities being turned against us or used to commit heinous acts. In the healthcare industry, data breaches strike a similarly terrifying chord.
There were at least 337 healthcare data breaches affecting millions of individuals in the first half of 2022, according to Fortified Health Security’s mid-year report. If this trend follows for the second half of the year, 2022 will likely hold the record for industry data breaches, surpassing 2020’s previous high of 663 breaches.
The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) mandates all HIPAA-covered entities and business associates to report on data breaches involving protected health information (PHI) under the HIPAA Breach Notification Rule.
Most data breaches stem from third-party vendors, so healthcare organizations should develop third-party risk management strategies to ensure patient data doesn’t fall into nefarious hands.
2. Paging Dr. Moreau? Monkeypox reminds us that other pandemics are possible
After a couple of years of masking, shutdowns, and social distancing, 2022 was supposed to be the end of COVID and the pandemic lifestyle we’d all grown used to.
In classic horror-movie fashion, the coronavirus continues to linger (albeit “offscreen” for much of the public) long after its demise has been declared. Worse still, the rise of the monkeypox virus in May 2022 threatened to drag the world into a sort of simul-sequel to the pandemic we’re still navigating.
Monkeypox, sadly, involves no human-animal hybridization or science gone bananas. The reality is much less fun: It’s a viral infection passed through close contact with other humans, sometimes resulting in a fever and blistering rash.
With treatment, monkeypox is uncomfortable but rarely deadly, and most symptoms usually clear up within a few weeks.
3. A hog’s heart beats in a human chest for the first time
Now we can get into human-animal hybrids.
The University of Maryland Medical Center performed the first-ever heart transplant from a pig to a human in January 2022. Doctors took the organ from a pig that had been genetically modified to remove a type of sugar in its cells responsible for organ rejection.
Human organs are in short supply, and this monumental experiment offers hope for the 106,000 people on the national transplant waiting list. Harvesting organs from animals might seem ghoulish in principle, but once perfected, the practice could prevent thousands of deaths every year.
But first, scientists will have to get the go-ahead from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to begin clinical trials and navigate their devilishly difficult approval process.
4. Lab-grown skin becomes commercially available
Leatherface could have saved himself a lot of work if he had just waited a few decades to start on that skin mask.
The UK-based Labskin and University of Bradford’s Centre of Skin Sciences created the first-ever lab-grown, pigmented skin model. While this “skin” isn’t meant to be transplanted onto a human as-is, it does provide a full-thickness model (complete with microbiome and melanocyte pigmentation) for biopharma developers looking to test dermatological products without human subjects.
The scientists who developed this model hope that it will eventually be used to further regenerative medicine and enable personalized skin grafts for burn victims, cancer patients, and those seeking cosmetic surgery.
5. Artificial intelligence continues its takeover
Ok, “takeover” is a bit much. Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) aren’t bringing HAL 9000 or Skynet into your doctor’s office—yet.
For now, AI/ML tech is mostly working behind the scenes in healthcare, but it’s a little spooky to consider all the ways that this technology has been silently embedded into medical systems over the last few years.
AI/ML is helping providers make more informed treatment decisions, discover new drugs, sort through massive amounts of data, and identify ideal patient cohorts for clinical trials. Google has even worked with educational institutions to develop an AI system that can predict the outcome of hospital visits.
On a broader scale, this technology is giving healthcare commercial and medical affairs teams the tools to target clinical experts and prospective buyers, segment markets, spot hidden business opportunities, and make more confident, data-driven decisions. It’s a little bit like having “the shine,” but without the haunted hotels and descents into madness.
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