The Agenda

Who Will Build the Digital Platform That Transforms Medical Care?

Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google, is an enthusiastic backer of President Obama. I tend to think that he should, by virtue of a number of his stances on pressing public issues, reconsider this allegiance. Regardless, I find him insightful on a wide range of issues. A few weeks ago, at the e-G8 forum in Paris, he argued that building digital platforms is essential to wealth creation, an argument reminiscent of the case Henry Chesbrough makes in Open Services Innovation.

Schmidt’s remarks came to mind as I pondered the future shape of medical innovation, which Daniel Kraft discussed at this year’s terribly glamorous TEDxMaastricht. His basic argument is that new diagnostic technologies, which will develop in parallel to the rise of pervasive computing, will allow us to reduce our reliance on flesh-and-blood medical practitioners. I wrote a column on a related subject back in March:

In May, the pioneering futurists Kevin Kelly and Gary Wolf are hosting the first Quantified Self conference in Silicon Valley, a gathering for people using new technological tools to keep track of how their bodies are working. Led by thinkers like the psychologist Seth Roberts, there is a new movement of self-experimenters who are questioning received wisdom about diet, sleep, weight loss and heart health, and are racing ahead of conventional medical science. Personal genomics and life-logging are still in their infancy, but they offer the hope that we’ll one day see doctors as equals who help us achieve our physical goals rather than as shamans who can’t be questioned. Pointless hysterectomies, stent implants and lymph node dissections will become as obsolete as blood-sucking leeches, and we’ll all be healthier for it. 

I’m curious to to which firms will build the digital platforms that will emerge in medical care. Mike Masnick recently wrote an excellent post on the success of RunKeeper, a start-up that has managed to build a valuable niche in the fitness world against stiff competition from established giants. Though RunKeeper started off as a simple tool for runners, it has far more ambitious plans:

Imagine a system that can identify correlations between a user’s eating habits, workout schedule, social interactions and more, to deliver an ecosystem of health and fitness apps, websites, and sensor devices that really work, based on a user’s own historical health and fitness data. The Health Graph has the potential to completely alter the health and fitness landscape.

One wonders if we’ll one day mention RunKeeper in the same breath as Google. If we do manage to build a more participatory, decentralized health system, it may well change our policy debates for the better as cost growth is restrained through increases in productivity rather than rationing. 

Polemically, I have to add that Medicare pilot programs represent a lackluster second best to the trial-and-error discovery process that is an open and competitive marketplace.

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