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Why We Need “Connectedness” in Healthcare

Healthcare “systems” are broken in the United States, struggling in many other developed countries, and virtually non-existent for billions of the planet’s residents.  The U.S. spends far more on health care than any other country yet we still rank at or near the bottom of industrialized nations’ health outcomes. One study indicates that outcomes are actually worse in communities with higher Medicare spending.  Moreover, rising healthcare costs are eating away at the household incomes of average Americans.

The populations of many developing countries are both aging and becoming sicker due to chronic disease. These societies will not replicate the U.S. model, nor should they.  They cannot afford to institutionalize millions of fragile seniors or adopt our current approach to the diagnosis and treatment of disease which too often is not effective, affordable or sustainable.  How many of us have “wandered” from generalist to specialist to specialist in the search for a correct diagnosis and effective therapy?  Now try that in a society with 1/10th to 1/4th the number of doctors per resident.

The solution to these problems lies not in continuing to deploy our current anti-competitive, labor-intensive, inconvenient, obscenely expensive and non-transparent model for health care services and delivery. For the benefit of rich and poor citizens alike, we must migrate to a connected, affordable, personalized and accountable 21st century model of healthcare. That new model is connected health, enabled by wireless platforms and utilizing the full range of useful modern technologies.

Connected health delivers transparency to healthcare products and services.  Consumers are equipped with the knowledge and tools they need to engage in managing their own health, payors can evaluate outcomes and limit payments for ineffective services, and regulators can better manage risk and efficacy while moving promising products into the market more quickly.

The technological tools are at hand to do this. All we really need is the will and commitment. Through the actions of the individuals and institutions (both public and private) that shape the modern world, we can vastly expand access to affordable high quality health care, and, in the process, empower individuals to better maintain their own health, thereby reducing demand for healthcare service.

This revolutionary transition need not be driven by altruism. There is fantastic wealth to be created by leveraging the power of wireless connectivity to satisfy the most fundamental human need after nutrition, water and shelter. We have incredible knowledge of human health locked up in millions of databases and doctors’ minds.  Providing that knowledge to billions of people who have access to wireless services is the largest readily addressable market that the world has ever seen.  Through the power of digital technologies, a business transaction with a few wireless operators can turn most of the world’s population into potential customers.

Just as the Internet has made everything from books and music to the physical properties of subatomic particles instantly accessible to anyone with computer access, the same will be done for the world’s medical knowledge.  Access to knowledge will pave the way for the deployment of wearable, swallowable, injectable and otherwise passive sensors that will enable personal biofeedback to be an affordable service for everyone. Beyond technology, other key drivers in the initial transformation of healthcare include:

  • Consumer Demand.  Even in the U.S., consumers are taking on increased financial and caregiver responsibility for their family’s health.  In the developing world, self-pay is the dominant business model.
  • Affordable Distribution.  Cell phone subscribers (six billion and counting today) constitute the largest distribution channel for digital information ever created.  Through this channel, consumers have access to knowledge and assistance and healthcare organizations have direct access to their end users.
  • Free Information.  Properly organized and presented, wireless health information will enable free diagnosis of a majority of human diseases. Similarly, the search for the correct diagnosis for more complex conditions, hard to define diseases, and those requiring special tests will become more efficient. These changes will free up resources for therapeutic purposes.
  • Knowledge is Power.  Knowledge in the hands of innovators and purchasers moves power from sellers to buyers and destroys or disrupts entrenched economic interests.  Witness the effects of innovation (and the success of the innovators) on global supply chains (Walmart), Internet commerce (Amazon) and digital music (Apple).
  • Social Networks.  In the hands of citizens, communication and community building platforms such as Twitter and Facebook are equally disruptive to entrenched political interests (Arab Spring) and have positively affected healthcare (PatientsLikeMe).  These and similar tools can spread knowledge and move public opinion (and votes) faster than any preceding mode of communication.  Applied to healthcare, they will accelerate the adoption of improved products, applications and services.

All of these tools empower individuals to better care for themselves and to assume more responsibility for their own health. This is critically important since a large portion of our health care costs are driven by excess demand that can be reduced if individuals, families, communities, businesses, and payors have easy access to information that will enable them to be better managers of health and better purchasers of healthcare.  More fundamentally, these tools will enable motivated consumers to avoid healthcare services that are driven by lifestyle choices and health illiteracy.

Some of the world’s most successful non-healthcare companies and business sectors are focused on this emerging market.  Qualcomm, PepsiCo, mobile operators and the entertainment sector are engaged.  These companies and other “outsiders” are helping committed insiders to disrupt the healthcare sector’s fragmented, paternalistic and anti-competitive approach to service. Increased transparency and the power of social communities will help ensure that political power is used to enhance rather than hinder necessary policy changes in healthcare funding and regulation.

Existing and emerging organizations will deliver the information that citizens need to maintain personal health to their handheld devices.  They will deliver useful preventative, diagnostic and therapeutic information and services to every human being within reach of a wireless network. Existing businesses will be disrupted. More of the value that is inherent in the massive stores of life sciences knowledge will be accessible to billions of human beings and their caregivers.

Connected health is the enabler of these changes. It makes the world’s medical knowledge accessible and brings accountability to healthcare institutions. Without it, the world’s populations will be poorer and sicker.  With it, new companies will emerge that are as transformative and Google and Amazon.  Consumers will be the key beneficiaries.

Robert B. McCray

President & CEO, Wireless-Life Sciences Alliance

Chairman, Alliance Healthcare Foundation