Digital Is Best Medicine for the Health Industry

By Nowak, Peter | Winnipeg Free Press, July 5, 2012 | Go to article overview
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Digital Is Best Medicine for the Health Industry

Nowak, Peter, Winnipeg Free Press

'Rebel' doctor sees revolution coming in health services

The emergence of new technology has forced the entertainment business to adapt rapidly into a more consumer-friendly, digital-first operation. But could the same thing happen with the notoriously conservative and slow-moving health-care industry?

Dr. Eric Topol, the renowned and self-professed "rebel" cardiologist, says he thinks the same principle -- popular demand driving transformative change -- will also bring about a revolution in how we manage our health.

"Everything we do in medicine reflects the lack of appreciation of the individual," he says.

"The medical community is incapable of effecting change in a reasonable time frame, so we really need to get the consumer base educated and activated."

In his new book, The Creative Destruction of Medicine, Topol details this coming digital revolution in health care.

While it is perhaps the most important industry there is, it's also one of the last to adopt digital technologies to drive efficiencies.

The current state of medicine is population-based and treatments are created based on how they might affect a large group of people, he says. Such a system guarantees the majority of drugs will be ineffectual for many because it doesn't take into account the numerous biological differences in individuals.

Fortunately, four emergent technologies -- portable wireless sensors, personal genome sequencing, better digital imaging tools and ubiquitous electronic records -- are converging to upend this antiquation, Topol says.

Genome sequencing, in particular, holds tremendous promise because it will give individuals a full read of their own DNA, complete with a list of potential health conditions and the chances of developing them.

With such a road map, people will be able to demand treatments tailored to their specific needs, as well as avoid harmful behaviours.

With the price of sequencing heading toward less than $1,000 and the quality of assessments improving, Topol expects to see more than a million tests logged by the end of this year.

Prices will continue to drop and quality will continue to get better, which means sequencing could soon become commonplace.

Genomics will also combine with technologies that are already prevalent, such as wireless sensors and apps that work with mobile devices. Withings and iHealth, for example, already have a blood-pressure monitoring cuff that connects to smartphones, while AliveCor is an electrocardiogram app for the iPhone. Many more are in the pipe.

As a result, one of the first things Topol asks his older patients is what kind of phone they have. If it's an older model, he gives them an unusual prescription: "I tell them, 'You need to get a new phone.' "

Topol also takes his own medicine, so to speak. All of his records are electronic and available to patients -- no impossible-to-read handwriting -- and he hasn't used a stethoscope in two years, instead opting for a hand-held ultrasound monitor that takes real-time electrocardiogram readings of patients.

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