THE BLOG
04/13/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Health Care Innovation Now

The debates about health care are in the minds of every citizen in the United States: rich or poor, urban or rural, young or old. The subject is so personal that it gives rise to real passion on all sides.

While these debates run on, health care technology and innovation are accelerating. I believe we are at a point of inflection where we can look to a world of better, more affordable health care.

As head of GE Global Research, I am privileged to be able to see innovation happening all over the world, inside and outside of the company. And I see many wonderful innovations on the way.

Last year, GE launched a new initiative called "healthymagination." Its aim is simple -- to make health care more affordable, accessible and to improve its quality. GE made this commitment because we believe technology can deliver the solutions that people want and that are urgently needed in health care.

While both the quality of care and accessibility have improved in recent decades, costs have risen dramatically and are approaching unsustainable levels. We also are facing new and unprecedented challenges in the quality of care and access to it because of growing numbers of people faced with chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer's disease and cancer.

But from where I sit, the next twenty years hold great promise in meeting these challenges by fundamentally changing the delivery and management of care. For one, medicine is moving from an intuitive practice to a more precise science. Rather than doctors evaluating a complex set of patient's symptoms and making their best judgment on a prognosis or treatment, our knowledge and understanding of disease will increase to such a point where these decisions become more prescriptive. We're taking the guesswork out of diagnosis and treatment.

What does this do for health care? Well, for one, it will increase our understanding of disease and the likelihood of finding cures. Many infectious diseases today, for example, which used to devastate entire populations, have been completely wiped out because scientists discovered their cause and developed effective treatments. The same is starting to happen now for cancer and other complex diseases. Because their biology is better understood and precise diagnosis is possible in some cases, certain cancers can now be treated with targeted medicines, significantly increasing survival and quality of life.

With increasing precision and predictability in medicine, we also can eliminate redundant tests, diagnose disease earlier and help doctors pinpoint the treatment sooner so we can move from costly "sick-care" to keeping people healthy and treating disease at an earlier stage.

The other big trend I see is the decentralization of health care delivery. Today, the bulk of health care services still largely come from the hospital. This limits access to care and raises health care costs. Although hospitals will continue to play a major role in treating complex diseases, making medicine more prescriptive will allow for less complicated and more routine services to come from smaller, more specialized health centers and clinics that are more efficient and have less overhead costs. Just think of what this will do for people in rural communities that have to drive miles to a hospital to receive care today.

A key technology that will be critical to the decentralization movement is the electronic medical record (EMR). We need an EMR that can travel with the patient. That would ensure that any doctor who treats that patient can do so from the same knowledge base. This is crucial to preventing medical errors and can help reduce costs by eliminating any redundancies in the patient's care.

Disruptive technologies are another key enabler for decentralizing care. Until recently, ultrasound machines could only be used by trained technicians and images interpreted only by highly trained specialists at centralized locations. Now we are developing hand-held ultrasound machines of the size of the iPhone that are simple enough to be operated by a minimally trained person. And with the aid of computer-assisted tools, the images can be interpreted by a primary care physician and transferred over a mobile network for interpretation by a specialist.

The exciting thing is that the health care trends and technologies are happening now. And with the urgency for technology solutions in health care never greater, the time is right.