By Daniel Kraft, M.D.
Daniel Kraft is a Stanford and Harvard-trained physician-scientist, inventor, entrepreneur and innovator. He is currently Executive Director of FutureMed, Medicine Track Chair of Singularity University, Founder and CEO of IntelliMedicine, and Scientific Advisory Board member for the Nokia Sensing XCHALLENGE.
It sometimes seems that the world is speeding up, and it's often hard to remember how quickly things are changing in our everyday lives. The relatively slow, expensive technologies of the 1970s and 80s are now essentially 'free' features that have dissolved into our exponentially more powerful devices. GPS with navigation directions, video and still cameras, online encyclopedias and the like would have separately cost over $500K 20-30 years ago. As inventor, futurist and Singularity University co-founder Ray Kurzweil likes to point out, a kid in Africa with a smartphone today has more access to information than the U.S. president did 15 years ago.
I recently found (via Twitter) this delightful and insightful story about a couple, both born in 1986, who have two young children. The couple, inspired by their son's propensity to play on an iPad instead of outside on a nice day, have chosen to revert their life to 1986 levels of technology. No cell phones, no Google, no email, no tweets, no SMS.... So now they read books, develop rolls of film, and look things up in Encyclopedia Britannica. Watching this family, we might wonder how we got through the day and communicated and coordinated with our friends and family. But we don't need to go back 27 years; even the changes in the last decade have been breathtaking, and have disrupted many businesses and ways of life (for better or worse). When was the last time you went to a travel agent, visited a physical bank, drove to pick up a VHS or DVD rental?
While much of our world has changed, many elements of our healthcare system seem stuck in the 1980s or before. Most important medical information is sent by FAX machine. Data is often siloed between clinics and hospitals down the street from each other. Blood pressures and blood glucose values are scribbled down in notebooks and rarely if it all shared with the patient's clinicians. Appointments are often difficulty to obtain, and sourced through multiple choice phone systems. And hard to decipher prescriptions are hand carried to pharmacies. Waiting rooms are still, well, waiting rooms, replete with old magazines and #2 pencil forms asking the same questions about allergies and addresses to be filled out ad infinitum.
But all of this - how we define and experience healthcare and the practice of medicine - is on the cusp of major change. In a decade from now it will look as quaint as the family living with 1986 technology. Indeed, this year, Electronic Medical Records finally surpassed the 50% mark in hospitals and many clinics.... Increasingly, physicians are able to email their patients, which can often help avoid problems or clarify treatment paths.... Walk into an Apple Store or a Best Buy and you will find 25+ 'connected health' type devices, which can measure everything from how many steps you take and stairs you climb to your weight, blood pressure, and even blood sugar and posture.... Smart phones (especially with the new capabilities in the iPhone 5S) are the supercomputers in our pockets (or increasingly on our wrists) with a billion times the performance/price ratio of an early 1970s machine. Smart mobile devices are increasingly becoming a dashboard for our health, whether that means tracking our exercise, diet, or medicine compliance, or phone cases that can capture and transmit your critical bio-data.
At FutureMed, a program I run out of Singularity University, we look at the trajectory of fast-moving technologies and how they can be leveraged, especially at their convergence to improve health and medicine. Health data companies like those vying for the Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE have emerged out of FutureMed, and are creating connected, smart and networked devices that will change how we manage home diagnosis, triage, and communications with our clinicians. Smart, cheaper and point-of-care sensors, such as those being developed for the Nokia Sensing XCHALLENGE, will further enable the 'Digital Checkup' from anywhere. The world of 'Quantified Self' and 'Quantified Health' will lead to a new generation of wearable technologies partnered with Artificial Intelligence that will help decipher and make this information actionable.
And this 'actionability' is key. We hear the term Big Data used in various contexts; when applied to health information it will likely be the smart integration of massive data sets from the 'Internet of things' with the small data about your activity, mood, and other information. When properly filtered, this data set can give insights on a macro level - population health - and micro - 'OnStar for the Body' with a personalized 'check engine light' to help identify individual problems before they further develop into expensive, difficult-to-treat or fatal conditions.
Bringing these disparate, fast-moving and often convergent technologies together to reshape the future of healthcare certainly has challenges, not the least of which are those from the regulatory and reimbursement worlds. But with some imagination and the desire to address challenges with many of the seemingly magical technologies increasingly at our disposal, we have the opportunity to dramatically shift healthcare from the VHS tape era into the 21st century.