Medicine's tech future--the view from the Valley

FutureMed

FutureMed Executive Director Daniel Kraft speaks at an event on May 27, 2011.

Article Highlights

  • Technology is wicked cool, and will deliver us all

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  • New technologies & approaches -- the key question being not if, but when

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  • Innovators focused primarily on developing cool technologies, rather than solving actual problems

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A few quick impressions from last night’s FutureMed extravaganza put on by Singularity University at the Museum of Computer History, a stone’s throw from Google’s Mountain View headquarters.

The event featured an exhibition session where emerging digital health companies (with some others) demo’d their initial products, followed by a plenary session introduced by FutureMed Executive Director (and former MGH medicine colleague) Daniel Kraft, and featuring presentations to the packed house by several leading innovators – including one of the developers of IBM’s Watson, which is pivoting from Jeopardy to clinical medicine.

"Technology is wicked cool, and will deliver us all." -- David Shaywitz

Given the high density of reporters there – to say nothing of innovators, would-be innovators, VCs, and assorted poseurs (categories not mutually exclusive) – I expect there should be lucid coverage available elsewhere on the web.

Instead, I want to capture the three sequential reactions I had, which strike me as somewhat analogous to Haeckel’s Law (ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny), as each response seems to reflect a distinct stage of professional development.

The inevitable initial, and most visceral reaction to this sort of event, is that technology is wicked cool, and will deliver us all; I think this two minute introductory video captures the vibe more effectively than any description I could offer.   I’m also certain any student of semiotics would find it especially rewarding.

Accordingly, even much of the informal discussion at the event seemed to revolve around Big Questions, lofty ideas, and the Next Big Thing.  New technologies and approaches – artificial organs from stem cells!  Computers that can read your mind! Bottom-up innovation!  Exponentials! – were discussed expectantly, the key question being not if, but when.  The remarkable progress many in the tech crowd had seen in other disciplines suggested that technology advances in health would be similarly achievable, and just as inevitable.

My second reaction to this event — arriving only moments after the first, and perhaps reflecting my experiences in the trenches of clinical medicine and drug development — was far more critical; it was not difficult to see the event as a celebration of technology for its own sake.  For many in attendance, technology was regarded as both driver and consequence of human progress and human advancement, an almost unassailable good in its own right.

The problem with this, as I’ve discussed extensively before, is pragmatic: there’s a huge gap between the way many technologists envision medical problems and the way problems are actually experienced by physicians and patients.  For example, I am curious to see how Watson does on the MGH ward service where I trained; the discrete questions of Jeopardy will almost certainly provide limited preparation for the ambiguities and complexities of this experience.

The worry more generally is that innovators are focused primarily on developing cool technologies, rather than solving actual problems; a century and a half ago, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. famously commented, “If the whole materia medica [available medications] as now used, could be sunk to the bottom of the sea, it would be better for mankind-and all the worse for the fishes.”  It’s tempting to speculate that the same might apply today to the estimated 15,000 medical apps now available on iTunes.

At a minimum, it’s clear there remains an urgent need to more efficiently connect those with problems and those interested in developing solutions – as I discussed in this recent column, and will be working on in the coming months with colleagues at Rock Health.

Upon further consideration, however, it occurred to me that reflexive skepticism isn’t really justified either.  Consequently, my third perspective on the event, and the one I’m carrying with me, is that it’s a great thing that so many smart people are not only developing powerful new technologies (even if currently not as powerful as typically portrayed), and seek to deliver improvements in health (even if the aim remains a bit off).  What’s clear is that there is a critical mass of people who are converging, and who bring a range of expertise, experiences, and capabilities – to say nothing of their war stories and battle scars.

While the vision of medicine preached at FutureMed remains far removed from the way medicine is practiced daily in the clinics right down the street, I think the worlds may be getting closer – the simple act of using an iPhone highlights the power of easily accessible personal technology, and more physicians and patients are starting to explore, and recognize, what technology might offer them.

Similarly, technologists, having learned from the experience of Amazon and Zappos, increasingly appreciate the need to listen to the voice of the customer – even while realizing that, as compellingly demonstrated by Steve Jobs – customers might occasionally want something they cannot currently imagine.

Although the future of medicine is unlikely to be either as close or as glorious as Daniel Kraft and his colleagues enthusiastically proclaim, I’ve little doubt that he’s doing a world of good in catalyzing its ultimate arrival.

Dr. Shaywitz is an adjunct scholar at AEI.

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