Body Computing Is a Glimmer of Hope in the Health-Care Chasm

I just returned from the University of Southern California's Body Computing conference, held in Los Angeles. The one-day event was led by Dr. Leslie Saxon, and focuses on mobile devices that can assist physicians and patients. It was also a great exchange about how the medical industry views technology. Against the backdrop of the nation's health-care debate, panelists discussed the possibilities, risks, and opportunities offered by technology to doctors, patients, and society at large.

A few observations about this conversation:

body computersThe medical industry itself is deeply conflicted. Doctors, hospitals, insurers, equipment developers, and the government are worried about the structure and culture of health-care services and products provided today. The current model provided to Americans is based on expensive equipment, used by highly-trained experts, to provide care in uncomfortable places like hospitals and labs. Panelists and doctors in the audience had profound difficulty imagining an alternative system.

A sense of change was in the air. The presence of many outsiders (like me) suggested that a massive change is around the corner. There's a shift toward providing care with less expensive or even free products and services, by novices, in comfortable places like patients' homes. In a society with 50 million family members supporting the sick, old, and frail (growing exponentially to 130 million in the next ten years) we are looking for an easier and far more pervasive model distributed health care. Microsoft HealthVault and Livestrong.com show the potential in a new Web-based health system. This new system would have much in common with the traditional Web community industries. Standard communication formats are enabling horizontal integration of data and equipment from various manufacturers, while users are becoming empowered to makes decisions and form associations of caregivers, like friends on Facebook.

VCs and product developers are scared of anything that deviates from their old business model. No one wants to abandon a model based on proven efficacy with a potentially longer FDA approval process and difficult adoption process by the insurance industry, the economic gatekeepers of any innovation in American health care. Countless times it was mentioned how impossible it is to build a business model around medical services or products without knowing the state of coverage and reimbursement by the health insurance industry. The thought of bypassing this old model altogether was mentioned obliquely few times as everyone looked for a disruptive idea to break the mold. Simply put, having gone through decades of relying on FDA regulations, tightly managed reimbursement models, and cutting-edge technology, this industry does not know how to do "good enough" and affordable. I admired how candid and open people were about it--they know they don't know--and that they're looking for outsiders to disrupt (key word!) the status quo and create a new ecosystem around health care.

body computersDesign is central to the discussion around the need for disruption. Even though Web design, product design, and communication were represented only by a few outsiders--like me--the forum was widely enthusiastic about the potential for design to be a game-changer. As an iPhone application or a wellness gadget, the potential is to provide low-cost tools on a mass scale to help people care for themselves, using robust data and communication system like the Web. That change in thinking will combine the ability of designers to think "horizontally," across professional disciplinary boundaries, while integrating the right mix of "good enough" technology.

Missing is a set of critical health-care issues that could be clinically assisted by simple, easy-to-use devices. I think the industry is not yet focused on these rule-of-thumb ideas that could be productized and distributed through Web or retail channels. One presentation showed an iPhone application that managed medicine, social activity, and a support group for a psychiatric patient. The app simply counted the pills taken, hours of sleep, and subjective stress-levels. It then suggested a correlation to psychological health state and offered emergency intervention when needed. Such simplicity is what we need. We need concise clinical ideas that can be effective tomorrow, not in the next decade. And making these ideas come to life is a task any designer would gladly take on.

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Gadi Amit is the president of NewDealDesign LLC, a strategic design studio in San Francisco. Founded in 2000, NDD has worked with such clients as Better Place, Sling Media, Palm, Dell, Microsoft, and Fujitsu, among others, and has won more than 70 design awards. Amit is passionate about creating design that is both socially responsible and generates real world success.

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