By Robert B. McCray
Robert is President and CEO of the Wireless-Life Sciences Alliance.
What can the health care industry learn from Hollywood? Can we use the power of technology and persuasion to empower consumers to take more responsibility for their own health? Can technology and knowledge of human behavior overcome the health problems that have manifested themselves in the last century of global technical advances? Ultimately, can we enjoy in health and healthcare the benefits that we take for granted in consumer electronics where devices become cheaper and better over time?
The X PRIZE Foundation and Nokia announced the $2.25 million Nokia Sensing X CHALLENGE at the WLSA's 7th Convergence Summit in May. This follows closely on the announcement of the $10 million Qualcomm Tricorder X PRIZE at the Consumer Electronics Show in January. Taken together, these are among the most exciting healthcare related announcements of the past seven years and they will drive tremendous innovation in wireless health by drawing new innovators to the field. Health is "cool."
Consider the health problems facing Americans. Chronic diseases are rapidly increasing among young people (for example, diabetes and pre-diabetes rates among teenagers increased from 9% in 1999 to 23% last year) - just as the number of people over age 65 is exploding and getting sicker and the supply of doctors willing to deliver primary care services is declining. Neither the U.S. government nor most individual Americans can afford to chase the increasing costs associated with accessing traditional medical care in the traditional manner.
The developing world, which has even fewer physicians and healthcare institutions, will not follow the American hospital and physician centric approach to supporting health. Instead, they are adopting the tools of modern technology to improve access to health information and support. In this model, health is an outcome for which the individual is primarily responsible with the support of her community. Institutional support is a convenience, but access to health care paid for by someone else is not a social "right."
Is this ideal? Not entirely. But it is the global reality and with the rich world facing severe financial, aging and chronic disease problems, our societies must return to a past in which individuals looked to themselves and their family/social networks first before scheduling an appointment with a doctor for many common ailments.
Fortunately, in a tech-enabled wireless health future, we will be equipped to take on this responsibility and we will be happier for it. As consumers we will be empowered and (re)engaged to be the primary managers of our own health. The Nokia Sensing X CHALLENGE and Qualcomm Tricorder X PRIZE will be key drivers of this future. They are already engaging the community of researchers, entrepreneurs, industry and the health care community to develop smart connected devices that are scalable, portable and user friendly. These devices will work for consumers and not just clinicians. They will be tools for village caregivers in Asia and Africa, and for Promotores in North America, who help the poor access knowledge, products and services to manage health and improve life.
So how does this solve key societal issues?
Empowering consumer health. People want to be self-sufficient - we desire control over our lives. The separation of consumers from medical knowledge that is delivered in a fee for service has disconnected millions of people from their own health and wellbeing. "Doctor knows best" and "there is a pill of the problem" might well describe the American approach to health care of the past 50 years. The introduction of a consumer device that, for example, informs a mother as to whether her child really needs to see a physician and if so what questions to ask will shift a good deal of control to the patient and avoid many unnecessary visits to emergency rooms and clinics.
Reengaging with ourselves. Nearly half of Americans are overweight or obese due primarily to over-eating and over-sitting. About 20% smoke cigarettes. Modern conveniences such as traditional unhealthy fast food and packaged food products have freed up time for other activities, but absent effective feedback loops we ignore the long term adverse effects of these products and end up overweight and at risk of developing diabetes and heart disease. Convenient sensors will be bundled with intelligence, devices and applications to create feedback loops that will support the creation of healthful habits to replace the destructive habits so many of us have embraced. This will keep us out of the doctor's office, thus freeing up resources for the sick who cannot care for themselves.
The disruptive power of technology. Digital technology has recreated every major sector that it has touched and this will take place in health care as well. It is already starting with medical devices and in genetics research where analog systems are being replaced with digital equipment that is cheaper, faster, more proficient and more connected. It will happen with services as well. Consider what digital technology did to the music industry. Starting with MP3 technology and file sharing services such as Napster, consumers gained direct access to all the world's recorded music and on that basis refused in massive numbers to continue buying prepackaged "albums" of 12 - 18 songs from record labels costing $12 - 15. After about five years of fighting, newly recorded music became available as 99-cent singles downloadable to iPods and other players. Consumer knowledge was empowering and reduced wasted spending.
I believe we can follow the same pathway in healthcare, although the changes will take longer and be more controlled due to the appropriate conservatism of consumers and patients, and the strong regulatory, financial, professional and political resistance to change.
At WLSA, we are dedicated to making this transition occur as quickly yet safely as possible. Millions of Americans and billions of the world's population do not have access to affordable high quality care right now. Progress will come as the result of well meaning insiders collaborating with empowered and informed consumers and institutional purchasers. Technology such as those envisioned by the Nokia Sensing X CHALLENGE and Qualcomm Tricorder X PRIZE will play a critical role in equipping the "revolutionaries" in this engagement.
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