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The futurist: Disrupting health care


 Doctors today are constantly selling.

No, it didn’t start out that way; but a system has evolved that richly rewards members of the physician’s food chain if sales continue.

These sales include the selling of tests, pills, therapy, referrals, or simply selling the patient on their competency as a doctor.

Over the coming years, much of the selling will be replaced by data. Expert opinions get replaced by hard cold facts. Yes, this will unfold over time, and the transition period will involve a multitude of probabilistic approaches that will eventually lead to a more factual-based decision-making process.

While many in the medical profession view this as taking away much of the doctor’s power and authority, it may be just the opposite. Big data is not the doctor’s enemy, but rather a hugely valuable important tool, perhaps the most important of all time.

Consider the following scenario:

Sometime in the not-too-distant future, patients walking into the doctor’s office will first receive a full-body scan, creating a complete data model built around several thousand data points. Any area that gives even the slightest hint of troublesome activity will warrant closer inspection.

For any number of conditions, rather than prescribing medicine as a treatment, doctors will prescribe a device. Devices will have a wide range of purposes ranging from ingestible cams and monitors, to wearable super data-collectors, to body function amplifiers, to pulse correctors, to early warning indicators.

During the transition period it will be a combination of drugs and devices, but eventually most medicinal treatments will be replaced with devices designed around coaxing the body into repairing itself. 

Over time, doctors will transition from being the experts on human biology and medicine to being the experts on biological data and biological devices.

Here’s why understanding this transition period is so important. 

 Health care as a Battleground 

Yes, there are many things wrong with health care today. According to Peter Diamandis, founder of the X-Prize Foundation and author of the best-selling book Abundance, it’s no longer health care. It’s sick care. It’s reactive, retrospective, bureaucratic and expensive:

  • Doctors spend $210 billion per year on procedures that aren’t based on a patient’s needs, but fear of liability.
  • Americans spend, on average, $7,290 per person on health care, more than any other country on the planet.
  • Prescription drugs cost around 50 percent more in the U.S. than in other industrialized nations.
  • At current rates, by 2025, nearly one-quarter of the US GDP will be spent on health care.
  • It takes on average 12 years and $359 million to take a new drug from the lab to a patient.
  • Only five in 5,000 of these new drugs make it to human testing. From there, only one of those five is actually approved for human use.

With so much negative press surrounding the health care space, each of these problems points to an equal and opposite opportunity, and inside these opportunities we can begin to see glimpses of what our future might hold.

Future Doctors 

It would be a mistake to assume that we won’t need doctors in the future. The deeper we probe into the inner workings of human biology, the greater our realization of how little we actually know. 

It would also be a mistake to blame doctors for the system they currently find themselves in. Buoyed by the whims of big insurance companies, big pharma, and big government, doctors often find themselves the unwitting pawn of other, much larger, agendas. 

That said, doctors are about to enter unfamiliar territory, with mountains of data replacing judgment calls, and former ways of doing business simply gone forever. Not all will survive this transition. 


Data models will replace x-rays; sensors will replace labs and tests; devices will replace needles, blood draws, and pills; and people will gain control over their own data. 

There may indeed be a bifurcation of old school and new school physicians, and universities that teach traditional medicine vs. those that teach bioinformatics, data-chemistry, genomic-roadmapping, and cellular manipulation.

But in the end, for those who want to continue learning, and continue probing the farthest reaches of future health care, doctors will have unlimited opportunities to make a difference in the years ahead.

A Brighter Future Ahead

The tech world is making massive inroads into next generation health care. Here are just a few of the highlights:

  • Johnson & Johnson is working with IBM’s Watson computer to help it understand scientific research and determine the cause and effect relationship of treatments given during clinical trials. One of their systems is now consuming 27,000 documents a day, and has proven to be 90 percent accurate at diagnosing lung cancer, far superior to the 50 percent accuracy of human doctors.
  • Google has developed a smart contact lens that can do real-time monitoring of a diabetic’s blood sugar levels. Future versions of these lenses could include cancer-detection, drug-delivery, and come with super night vision.
  • Intuitive Surgical’s DaVinci robot has already performed over 1.5 million surgeries, using high definition 3D vision. This robot, with its precise micro-movements inside the human body eliminates the potential for hand tremors commonly associated with human surgeons.
  • Gene sequencing has plummeted in price 100,000-fold, from $100M per genome in 2001 to $1,000 per genome today. Human Longevity plans to create the largest genomics data set ever by sequencing over 1 million people. They believe accumulating a massive dataset like this will lead to cures for cancer, heart disease and neurodegenerative disease, and ultimately a plan for extending human life.
  • When it comes to 3D bioprinting, tissue biofabrication is already a reality, and the next step will be to create precisely designed organs, and transplanting these organs into the human body. The company 3D Systems has already demonstrated how to create accurate dental and anatomical models, custom surgical guides, implantable devices, exoskeletons, hearing aids, prosthetics and braces for scoliosis and other applications.
  • 3D printed prosthetic limbs are showing up everywhere, many demonstrating superior design and functionality for less than $200. Traditional artificial limbs will run $50,000 to $70,000, and need to be replaced as a child grows or a person ages.


Final Thoughts

If I were on the board of a pharmaceutical company today, I would be advising them to study, research, invest, and acquire some of the emerging device companies because that’s where the future lies.

Health care is an industry involving complicated politics, irrational decisions, and legions of people looking for their next paycheck. However, the sheer volume of money in the system is making it a prime target of entrepreneurs all over the world. 

But for those thinking that emerging tech will enable them to circumvent the entire health care system completely, it may, but only for a very tiny subset of the population.

We are on the verge of crossing over from science hype to science reality, with the prospects of creating a tremendous upside. Yes, there will be more than a few battles fought along the way between doctors and health industry executives, insurance administrators, and government officials but in the end, it doesn’t have to be a win-lose situation.

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Thomas Frey

Thomas Frey is the executive director and senior futurist at the DaVinci Institute and currently Google’s top-rated futurist speaker.  At the Institute, he has developed original research studies, enabling him to speak on unusual topics, translating trends into unique opportunities. Tom continually pushes the envelope of understanding, creating fascinating images of the world to come.  His talks on futurist topics have captivated people ranging from high level of government officials to executives in Fortune 500 companies including NASA, IBM, AT&T, Hewlett-Packard, Unilever, GE, Blackmont Capital, Lucent Technologies, First Data, Boeing, Ford Motor Company, Qwest, Allied Signal, Hunter Douglas, Direct TV, Capital One, National Association of Federal Credit Unions, STAMATS, Bell Canada, American Chemical Society, Times of India, Leaders in Dubai, and many more. Before launching the DaVinci Institute, Tom spent 15 years at IBM as an engineer and designer where he received over 270 awards, more than any other IBM engineer.

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