Bringing Technology to Healthcare

I applaud Eric Topol’s article about bringing the power of technology to bear on healthcare. Technology has transformed so many aspects of our life: how we manage and track our finances; how and where we shop; how we purchase homes; and how we search for jobs. It is about time these capabilities begin having widespread applications to improve healthcare.

I wholeheartedly believe that applying technology to healthcare offers multiple value propositions including increased access, reduced costs, greater efficiency, personal empowerment and a meaningful improvement in quality.

Today many individuals cannot readily access or afford to visit a primary care doctor when they are not feeling well. At a minimum, the lack of proper or timely treatment ensures unnecessary misery by the patient. Worse is the case in which early treatment is avoided and an issue becomes more serious, and hence, more painful and costly. The likelihood of this scenario can be dramatically mitigated when technology enables medical care to be instantly delivered to a patient for a fraction of the cost. This potential is exemplified by Google’s recent announcement of an application using artificial intelligence that has the ability to diagnose skin cancer. Imagine the benefit to the patient and the reduction of costs to the system if this potentially lethal malady can easily be identified at a nominal cost, promising early treatment.

The application of technology to what is commonly referred to as On Demand Health care or Telemedicine is a nice first step but not much more. Granted, it improves access and marginally reduces indirect costs, however, it feels more transactional and episodic and that isn’t how healthcare should be.

I think it is important to stress that the application of technology is not just about reduced costs and increased access. Technology has the potential to meaningfully improve the quality of healthcare a patient receives, and empower them to care for themselves. Notwithstanding a doctor’s best intent, it is virtually impossible for any individual to stay current with all medical research and all the data relevant to each patient.

That is not the case with a computer. The medical community aspires to provide integrated care to patients such that their cumulative history and data are utilized to accurately diagnose, treat and prevent. For most, this is still a dream because medical history is dispersed among many providers who rarely communicate, and there is no way to combine and manage the vast amounts of data that patients can now seamlessly collect about themselves using available technologies. Few, if any, doctors have the time and capabilities to track down and deeply evaluate this information on the patient’s behalf. However, this changes when a doctor is a partner in a computer enabled ecosystem that aggregates and analyzes a patient’s personal information. This version of “smart medicine” results in quality care while simultaneously dramatically reducing costs.

Technology-enhanced medicine is more than an opportunity – it is a necessity! This evolution must occur given the supply and demand factors facing healthcare. Experts agree that there is currently a significant shortage of primary care doctors – a patient’s first step and their quarterback – and that the situation is going to get materially worse over the next decade. This impending shortage is driven by two factors: a large percentage of current primary care doctors are approaching retirement and fewer medical students are selecting primary care/family medicine as a specialty.

As if a diminishing supply is not problematic enough, we are concurrently facing the compounding problem of increased demand because people are living longer and have more chronic issues than ever. This supply and demand mismatch means it will be essential to leverage the limited supply of doctors so that they are applying their unique and valuable skills where they are most needed. In the future, if not today, we can’t afford to have doctors wasting their precious time dealing with routine issues or gathering redundant information. Technology, or what the article refers to as Smart Medicine, can greatly help resolve this issue in a win/win manner for both patients and doctors.

What excites me is that there will be enormous investment opportunities in applying technology to many aspects of healthcare. The opportunities will be sizeable given the sheer market size, but they will also generate significant value to both patients and societies by making people healthier while concurrently dramatically reducing costs.