Digital health technologies are now likely to play a far more important role in improving the quality of our lives than any of us thought, and that’s putting a huge dent in expectations of what the future will hold for society. At the same time, we’re also going to look back on these technologies with wonder.
Two developments are driving this change. First, many medical procedures, especially imaging-based ones, have become far cheaper because they are now delivered digitally. This makes much more sense in many ways, even though they have been called “iPod medicine” because of their megabyte-size nature.
As K. Balakrishnan, director of the biomedical digital vision project at the National Institutes of Health, puts it, in an interview, “This is really the new reality.” He is right, but the news is likely to be more annoying than reassuring to doctors and hospitals.
The second development that makes digital health technologies more attractive is that more and more patients are asking for them. Yes, self-diagnosis has been an issue for years, but it has gotten much worse in recent years as people get both more connected and more fortunate.
Consider the case of Jai Lacroix, who was 27 when his spine gave out. And when doctors diagnosed his disorder in the operating room, their working assumption was that, as a result, he would need to undergo a complex series of procedures to restructure his spine and his internal organs.
Three such surgeries were being planned — with 3-D printers, of course — but nothing was going to be done for weeks, maybe even months. It could get quite bad if Lacroix was anywhere close to death. But one colleague and his boss caught wind of the operation and donated the scans for the surgical planning, and as luck would have it, Lacroix was taken off the list because of some glitch in the plan.
Ultimately, it turned out that his condition required minimal surgery, and at a lower cost than anticipated, but when Lacroix was discharged from the hospital without the first of those surgeries and one in progress, he got “a big kick in the butt,” he says. “It’s hard to explain how important this was to me.”
As patients and families discover this kind of advantage, in which digital tools can identify needs and apply technology effectively, their request for them will become increasingly common, not just in the US but around the world. It could even change how we conduct health care.
In many countries, demand for “digital health” will increase dramatically, and most providers will either get into the game to help patients find care in a more efficient manner, or they will expand their technical capacity in order to deal with it.
It’s unlikely that many people will be happy with the current state of their hospitals, which can often seem cramped and inadequate. “Digital health technologies could help provide convenient care to more patients, thereby reducing health-care costs,” says Balakrishnan.
The idea of nongeneric pharmaceutical companies offering customized treatments, as is already happening in a few cases, is pretty neat.
To date, digital health has generally been lumped in with “fintech,” a term that at first seemed promising but whose meaning has begun to erode as real applications begin to emerge.
The advent of technology like these, and the development of more and better technology, is also going to cause profound disruptions to the health-care industry.
The services we pay for now are the service providers’ inventions, and they will often be disrupted in the process.
It will also depend on whether what will happen is that the “industry” will adapt, thanks to technologies that save money by saving us money, and a whole industry will evolve to meet market needs.
Or it could be a field like the movie business, where new technologies routinely cause the death of old ones.