Nearly every industry has been heavily influenced by the digital revolution, but nowhere are the implications more transformative than in healthcare, where innovation can enable longer, healthier lives for billions of people. But converting such promise into reality requires continual ingenuity and endless perseverance. Hopeful disrupters need to master both the complexities of the human body and of healthcare economics.
On a recent panel at the Fast Company Grill in Austin, some of the industry’s leading thinkers shared how tech is redefining what’s possible in healthcare in the near- and long-term. “It’s an extraordinary time in healthcare,” Adam Schechter, president of global human health at biopharma giant Merck, told the crowd. “Technology has the ability to change almost everything.”
Redefining Personal Care
Personalization was a major theme for the Austin panel. Researchers completed sequencing the human genome 15 years ago, but only now are genetic tests getting cheap enough to be rolled out broadly. Figuring out who will benefit from specific therapies—and who won’t—will have profound benefits on health and health systems, Schechter said.
Increasing efficacy and efficiency with technology could lead to major cost savings across an industry that in the U.S. has ballooned to more than $3.3 trillion in spending a year—nearly one-fifth of the gross domestic product. “The healthcare system has to be changed around costs,” Schechter said. “In the business of medicines and vaccines, we have to show how the 12% of U.S. healthcare dollars spent each year on them can help reduce the other 88% of healthcare costs.”
As genetic advances improve, they’ll usher in medical treatment tailored to individuals, which maximizes the impact on a given patient. “This is the revolution everyone’s been waiting for,” said Iana Dimkova, director of healthcare investing at GE Ventures.
Detailed data about individuals can also help people stick to treatment plans. Low adherence remains the white whale of the medical profession. “In this new world, we’re discharging patients not just with a bag of pills, but with technology,” said Dr. Rasu Shrestha, chief innovation officer at UPMC in Pittsburgh. Bluetooth-enabled monitoring devices beam back readings on high-risk patients’ vitals as an early-warning system for relapse.
In the not-so-distant future, patients of all stripes could be taking pills that send notifications when they’ve been swallowed or removed from smart bottles. As a result, doctors could identify problems earlier. The adherence tech could also inform primary caregivers, including those helping a parent cope with Alzheimer’s disease.
Always On The Clock
Another friction that technology is poised to address is getting people to doctors in the first place. “There’s a lot of care avoidance,” said Jason Whitson, vice president and head of product at Medici, an Austin-based healthcare startup. Visiting a doctor can be a time-consuming slog, so people often let problems fester.
Through telemedicine visits provided by Medici and others, patients can check in by text, video, or photograph with less effort, lowering the barriers to seeking treatment. While digital visits may not suffice for complicated issues, the majority of office visits today can be eliminated, says Whitson, because they involve fairly simple problems.
He knows firsthand how effective telemedicine can be: His recent bout of severe poison ivy was diagnosed via a photo he shared in a visit with a doctor four states away.
Strength In Numbers
Some tech applications, however, have a ways to go. One of the quintessential visions of medicine in the future—an army of computers tapping massive stores of data to diagnose ailments better than humans—is still closer to science fiction than to fact. “If you look at software platforms doing machine learning and using artificial intelligence to diagnose things from cancer to neurodegenerative disorders, what you’ll find is that those types of solutions are very, very good on training data sets,” said Dimkova from GE Ventures. “And then once you run through a random set of patients, many of them have difficulty recognizing specific organs, let alone telling you whether something is malignant or not.”
That doesn’t mean AI isn’t useful in a clinical setting, but it does mean that machines won’t replace medical professionals anytime soon. This runs counter to the findings of a recent Fast Company-Merck survey, in which more than half of the respondents said they anticipate that one day the majority of health care interactions will not involve a human. Three-quarters of that group expect this to happen in the near future—in five to 15 years.
To which the Austin panel had a unified response: not so fast.
“The word of the day is augmentation,” said Shrestha from UPMC. He compares what’s happening in healthcare today to what people thought would happen to accountants when smart spreadsheets started proliferating. It triggered predictions that the profession would soon be obsolete. Instead, digital spreadsheets help accountants do their jobs faster, better, and at scale.
“That’s what’s going to happen in healthcare,” Shrestha said. Machine learning won’t necessarily diagnose, but it will—and, to a certain extent, already does—glean insight from thousands or even millions of other cases, to help better inform a doctor’s thinking.
Putting Patients—And Doctors—First
That help couldn’t come at a better time, as one of the main limitations facing healthcare technology is the workload of primary caregivers. Companies are bursting at the seams with ways to get doctors more data about patients from electronic medical records, wearable devices, and other new sources. The problem, said GE Ventures’ Dimkova, is that physicians are swamped: “They barely have the ability to ingest the information they have.”
The U.S. can learn from other healthcare markets that out of necessity use telemedicine, mobile phones, and other digital capabilities to help more people access care and enable doctors and health systems to do more, said Schechter from Merck. “Huashan Hospital, one of China’s largest hospitals, sees 10,000 outpatients per day,” he said. “You can’t sustain that in a country of 1.4 billion people, so they’re finding ways to move patients into all the ways of care while finding the right balance in maintaining empathy while using technology.”
For technology to have maximum impact, the industry as a whole may need to evolve. “The definition of healthcare needs to change,” insisted Shrestha. “We need it to not just be about the 20 minutes with a doctor, or the couple of days a patient is in a hospital. Healthcare needs to be about affecting behavior 24/7, 365 days a year.” The tech-enabled healthcare of the future could be as much about staying healthy as it is recovering from an illness or injury.
“The best way to reduce healthcare cost,” said Schechter, “is to prevent people from having disease in the first place.”
To get there, another fundamental change is waiting in the wings: collaboration. “I don’t believe that in the future any one company will do all of the biology, the chemistry, all of the data and analytics themselves,” he continued. “It’s going to take partnerships, and it’s going to take different types of partnerships.”
Recently, Merck has worked with the likes of tech giants Amazon and Alibaba. With Amazon, Merck crowdsourced new ways to help diabetes patients, using Alexa to convey information to physicians. With Alibaba, the company’s team in China used the Chinese e-commerce platform along with the social media app WeChat to reach around 120 million women to raise awareness of human papillomavirus, a far more efficient method than pharma’s conventional route of going through doctors. China has more than 1 million doctors.
“If you had told me 30 years ago that I’d be working with digital technology companies in order to run my daily business, I wouldn’t have thought it possible,” said Schechter. “Today, that’s a significant amount of my time.”
This story was created for and commissioned by Merck.