The future of healthcare

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about consumer health products, and in the comments David Waxman pointed me to a Fast Company post on the Future of Healthcare.  The following is a summary of how it works in the future for a mythical ‘Susan’:

Using networked devices and tapping into net works of people, Susan manages her own health and the health of her family. Her health-care team is comprised of her friends, her husband, her parents, her siblings, her pharmacists, her traditional health-care providers, along with online "friends" from around the world. This broad team, coupled with more personalized data collected from mobile phones, wireless health devices, and ongoing information exchanges, will lead to better health for her and her family. Susan no longer has to rely upon the infrequent office visit to yield health information; instead, she can draw from a steady stream of useful and personally relevant data, some of which may trigger the need for an office visit.

To break it down, there are three elements to this future vision that are different from today:

  1. The social aspect – friends, family and a wider web community are seen as providing advice
  2. Better data gathered from general purpose devices like mobile phones and specialist wireless health devices
  3. Continuous information exchange replaces the periodic visit to the doctor presumably via a web platform

From the point of view of the patient this is a compelling vision, particularly the second and third pieces.  When it comes to thinking about illness running regular checks would enable early detection and treatment of issues when they are still minor resulting in higher levels of general health.  Further, these ideas quickly migrate from treatment of problems to general wellness management, covering physical fitness and vitamin supplement regimes.

From my position as a venture capitalist I see a requirement for a ton of innovation here that should lead to creation of some significant companies.

I’ve already talked about a number of companies in the second category on this blog, of which the Withings Scale is the one I am still using and in addition over the last couple of days I have begun playing with some of the iPhone apps from GymFu.  These examples all focus on physical fitness, but there is plenty going on in the medical side too, just yesterday I was hearing about an Irish company which is developing a blood monitor that works intravenously, i.e. it will sit inside one of your veins (albeit only for ten days).

In the third category the obvious areas requiring innovation are the middleware for getting the data out of existing medical systems (something which Seedcamp winner Patients Know Best is working on), and also consumer services to support the collection and analysis of data and over time to connect with healthcare professionals (DailyBurn is a good example here).

It is extremely early days for all of this stuff.  Many of the products and solutions out in the market are very niche and often hard to use, and the traditional healthcare value chain is heavily regulated and will be slow to change – but I suspect the potential here is enormous.  As sensors and networks get cheaper and medical science advances at an exponential rate we could see some pretty amazing stuff emerge over the next few years.

Or will we?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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  • Having access to medical knowledge is a good thing; lacking the broader context is terribly dangerous. If you read Ben Goldacre's Bad Science, you can see how dangerous it can be.
    I fear outcomes where people can say “My friend had her cancer cured by homeopathy, it must work”…
    To my mind, the 19th century was an era of quackery and fads; in the twentieth century, we went too far the other way (i.e. the men in white coats must know best). Now, as we return to a more sceptical middle ground, we need to make sure we don't over shoot.

    Did I make sense, or am I just rambling?

  • That makes total sense. There is still a lot of quackery out there (Atkins anyone??) – and doing this right will require high levels of responsibility and integrity.

  • dwax

    Nic, I am glad you enjoyed the article and that it resonated with you. I think fast company did an excellent job of painting a rosy picture of the possibilities of Health 2.0.

    Don't know if you saw this – just recently David Blumenthal, MD, the national coordinator for health information technology, speaking at the 18th National HIPAA Summit:

    “History has shown that things that improve healthcare become part of what is used,” Blumenthal said. “I propose to you that in a few years doctors will all support EHRs,” he said. “Using EHRs will become a core competency for physicians. And once we've established that, it will be considered an absolute requisite.”

    If we truly have universal electronic health records that the primary care doc, specialists, tests, etc are all in. Then couple that with the wireless personal monitoring devices like you mention above along with search technology – the possibilities are endless to treat disease, maintain wellness, find patterns, cut down on mistakes, etc etc. bottom line, I agree with you, it's early on, but we are going to see exciting advances. david waxman

  • Thanks David. Glad we agree, exciting times ahead.

  • Collecting data is easy. Analyzing it is hard. Giving good personalized advice is even harder.

    In the future we'll also see more questions about where exactly to draw the line between non-regulated advice and medical, regulated online/mobile advice. So easy to give bad, in some cases dangerous suggestions to people about physical training or health.

    (This time speaking as an advisor to http://sportlyzer.com/ where we try to focus on the physical training & motivation analysis & advice part)

  • Working a way through the regulation is going to be a critical success factor for any start up in this area. I've been wondering if it is necessary to give 'advice' though, rather than present a framework which allows the use to make their own decisions?

    Sportlyzer looks interesting. I'd be happy to hear more when the time is right.

  • Hi Nic, I agree that there is signicant opportunity for innovation in this area. It would seem to me that there is occurring and opportunity for more innovation both at the consumer and within health service providers i.e. more patient care being undertaken at a local (GP) level than hospital level. I would also add that there is a difference in opportunity cost in the innovation utilisting technology or medical devices which don't necessarily require FDA approval (or equivalent) and those processes which are more intrusive and therefore do. Companies in the latter category would require the similiar support from investors as drug development companies however, some of the most interesting companies I have come across over the past year have been medical devices companies which challenge existing methods of treatment or monitoring but do not need to go through FDA approvals and therefore route to market is therefore much quicker.

    focused on this area.

  • Hi Richard – I agree – companies that don't need FDA approval seem the more attractive option.

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