Daniel Faris presents the future of healthcare – less time spent in waiting rooms and more visits to a (more reliable) Dr. Google, from the comfort of your own home.
Most of us have become familiar with the burgeoning DIY health technology industry. Wearable exercise trackers, heart rate monitors and a host of other Internet-connected devices are set to enter our lives in a big way in the coming months and years.
For some of us, the writing has been on the wall for a while: this is the future of healthcare. We’ve only begun this transition, and the consumer-level technology available to us right now is admittedly primitive compared to what we might have in store, but the building blocks are all there.
The bottom line is that visits to the doctor’s office will only become rarer – and more unnecessary –as time goes on.
Health Care Reimagined
Dr. Eric Topol, author of the book The Patient Will See You Now, claims to have seen the future of health care, and it looks quite a bit different from what we’re used to. Indeed, almost all of us can attest to the fact that navigating the healthcare industry is as expensive as it is frustrating, with new health care legislation only complicating things—at least in the short term.
In the US, Washington is still trying to decide whether having the lowest uninsured rate since 2008 is a good thing or not (here’s a hint for the Grand Old Party: it definitely is). Meanwhile, Topol is already looking toward the future.
Topol got his start thinking about home-based healthcare at a clinic in Cleveland back in 2000. He was approached by a cardiologist who was looking for ways to conduct heart rhythm monitoring over the Internet.
Back then, this was a novel idea. Fast forward to today and various sensors and monitors are readily available, sometimes for less than $100, and they’re finding their way into more and more consumer electronics devices including watches, bands, headphones, and even jewelry.
What’s the endgame here?
According to Topol, it could be an end to long waits for doctor’s visits and third-party examinations, and a long-overdue goodbye to stuffy examination rooms. I reached out to IME Care Center, a local independent medical examination company, but they were unavailable for comment at the time. “The hospital,” Topol says, “is an edifice we don’t need except for intensive care units and the operating room… can be done more safely, more conveniently, more economically, in the patient’s bedroom.”
Recently, news also broke that Google intends to provide “more relevant medical facts” in its search engine results, meaning concerned patients might just be a Google search away from a first-impression diagnosis. It’s another promising step toward fully streamlining healthcare.
The first revolution in healthcare was the transition from inpatient to outpatient procedures; these days, even relatively invasive surgeries can be performed in the course of a few hours, with the patient returning home afterwards to recover. The next revolution may well be from outpatient to home-based medicine and self-diagnosis.
Counting the Costs
If it sounds like the cost of this technology might be steep, a little perspective may be called for. According to the New York Times, the average American hospital now charges more than $4,000 for a single day-long stay. In Australia, the average cost is a slightly more affordable $1,472.
Part of the reason why hospital stays are so lengthy and expensive is because patients are frequently subjected to series of tests, not to mention all the waiting around while the results are determined. Investing in a sub-$100 heart monitoring device or an iPad app that can provide patients with their entire medical history and records in a matter of seconds, will take a great deal of the burden off the country’s hospitals and even make hospital visits unnecessary for many patients.
The other roadblock to widespread implementation of this technology is privacy. These days, cybersecurity is more important than it’s ever been, and in light of recent cyber attacks, such as the one Community Health Systems experienced late last year, Americans are understandably hesitant to trust their sensitive medical data to the all-knowing cloud. We have a long way to go before our fears are entirely assuaged.
What About the Personal Touch?
Here’s the tricky part: as you can imagine, the healthcare industry – which is already extremely slow to change – probably won’t be thrilled to be losing market share to the consumer electronics industry. However, Topol says it is simply one of the growing pains: “It’s not going to happen from within the medical community; it has to be from external forces… real innovation is coming from the start-ups.”
One start-up he’s particularly excited about? A UCLA-based company that’s pioneering a method for taking x-rays using your smartphone. “It’s the selfie of the future,” he says.
Even with all this promise of radical new technologies, there will likely always be a market for individualised care with a personal touch. People who are uncomfortable operating mobile devices, or who simply prefer maintaining a close relationship with a primary care physician, will probably always have the means to do so, no matter what new gadget markets emerge in the future.
For the rest of us, the arrival of these exciting technologies might mean we spend more time at home and less time leafing through out-of-date magazines in the waiting room. That’s progress I can get behind.