Fast Company

The Future Of Medical Technology Is Apps, Games, and Movies

An Oscar-winning producer talks about his interest in moviemaking, medicine, and scaleable (storytelling) design.

Kinect hacks

Nearly 8 of out 10 Americans are willing to pay up to $100 for a medical device that monitors their vital signs, according to an IBM study that tracks trends in the use of mobile devices in health care. Fewer than 10% of respondents are paying out-of-pocket charges for such devices today, but more than one-third expect to do so within the next two years. I am a movie producer, so why would this study be of such interest to me?

This might seem like a radical idea, but I believe that wireless medical technology and moviemaking can come together to create enormous good.

Let me explain. The basics of storytelling haven’t changed much since Aristotle’s Poetics, but technology has radically changed the medium for that storytelling multiple times over the past hundred years. Today, we’re at another inflection point as digital and mobile technologies alter the future of Hollywood. While many people see the emergence of these technologies as threatening the downfall of cinema, I think it’s a major opportunity--offering ever-increasing new ways to tell stories and impact the world for the better.

For instance, there are now thousands of medical applications written for Apple’s iOS and for Android. Most are fitness or diet-based, but there are some products, such as smart mobile blood glucose monitors for diabetics, that will make a difference in millions of lives. Current blood glucose monitors were recently assailed by tech guru (and diabetic) Walt Mossberg at a TED conference for their outdated and cumbersome design. These cheap-looking plastic devices are hard to read, give a one-time reading, and rely on constantly replacing relatively costly glucose strips. The new mobile device attaches to a smartphone, provides more accurate readings, and puts them in the context of previous readings. It’s one early application that gives the user a narrative context, allowing him or her to see “the story” of our own health.

Eventually, it should be our goal to create medical blockbusters, the equivalent of Star Wars or Avatar, that will benefit mankind. Applications are being developed for the treatment of chronic diseases and for rehabilitation that will combine entertainment and medical care. Need to do some rehab after recovering from an injury? Hook up your Microsoft Kinect (with its ability to see every movement) and play an emerald mining game that makes the chore of rehab exercises a game. Not only is the patient experience improved, but there will be more physical therapists to go around, energy savings, and vast cost savings. Need to improve your lung function? I’ve seen an iPhone app that can hear how hard you blow a whistle and has the potential to be both musical and entertaining.

The coming revolution in medicine will offer us the chance to engage in our own health in ways we have never done before. It will let us monitor and improve the health of others, and it will very much be televised. It will collapse time and space. We’ll carry our own medical records with us, access diagnosis and treatment suggestions, have the ability to be directly and immediately in touch with caregivers, which will help us achieve healthy outcomes. It will rely on designers and storytellers to create a compelling experience as we come to embrace the narrative of our own health.

We are at a moment when one “wow” technology is quickly followed by another. It’s as if Hollywood talent who first heard “sound” were then exposed the next year to “color” and then the next to “3-D”. The pace of change is dizzying and a little overwhelming for established creative talent. As a result not many of our great storytellers have spent time in creating for these new mediums. But some will and a younger generation most certainly is. It’s my hope that medical and technology companies will seek out the great storytellers and include them in helping close the loop between us, our care providers, our families, and our health.

They can do that by breaking apart the model that has existed since before Hippocrates. That model, of a doctor speaking one to one with a patient, will no longer be the dominant one. Instead we will get our health advice, and even our diagnosis, first from our digital devices. Just as film made it possible for billions of people to access compelling stories, so will digital medical applications make it possible for billions to access relevant medical advice. Consider the impact. The fundamental tenets of medicine won’t change any more than the fundamentals of storytelling changed from Aristotle to now. What will change is the scale. State of the art medicine can reach billions who never had access before–-just as world class entertainment has expanded its penetration over the last 100 years.

I am not sure how it going to look, but I have been spending time at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine and the School of Cinematic Arts. The two schools, and others at USC, are working closely through the USC Center for Body Computing (CBC). As part of its mission, the CBC has the task of bridging the gap between medicine and cinematic arts, which are different in some ways but quite similar in many more. By integrating the front line medical expertise of physicians with the artistry of moviemakers, we are trying to shift the focus toward scaling health apps worldwide: We would like to develop a mobile health app that can help kids, from Los Angeles to Mumbai, make better food choices. We want to create compelling solutions to global health problems.

In addition to concentrating on the technology and the medicine, we need to be concentrating on recreating the delivery of care, using powerful designs and stories to connect us to information and to one another. Perhaps the first mobile medical blockbuster will consist of a simple idea, a platform for creativity, rather than one creative product, not unlike the simple yet effective idea which is Facebook. Perhaps it will be a metaphor for our health in the form of a mobile application. The most profound medical applications are likely to involve a narrative--because we think in stories--our minds are just built that way.

[Images, of Kinect hacks: Top, Flickr user Radamés Ajna; Middle, Mattkim99; Last, Flickr user Klaynect]

Edward Saxon, an Oscar winner, produced Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia, and Adaptation, among other films. He is currently a producer on Enlightened, a forthcoming HBO series. He also works with the University of Southern California Center for Body Computing to help integrate the techniques of moviemaking into medicine and he will be a speaker at USC’s Body Computing Conference on September 23.

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2 Comments

  • Frank Moss

    This is a fabulous piece. Putting ordinary people in control of their health, and eradicating the age-old asymmetry between themselves and the "high priests" of medicine, is the only hope for solving the health care crisis. At the MIT Media Lab I have created a special research group,called New Media Medicine http://newmed.media.mit.edu/  which is devoted soley to this proposition. The author's perspective on the integration of storytelling/moviemaking technology with medicine is absolutely fascinating. I will definitely look into attending the USC Body Computing Conference on Sept 23.
    Thanks fro a wonderful piece!

  • Rolando Cabral

    very interesting topic. I also believe that this is the future of healthcare. I still remember a few years ago when Nintendo's wii became a staple of most physical rehabilitation center. I believe that was the official start of the gamification of healthcare. check this out:

    http://rolandocabral.com/?p=10...