Life, but not as we know it – the future of healthcare

The fundamental change about to occur in the healthcare market is the shift in risk which will affect all aspects of life and health will be no exception.  History has shown that medicine has changed from a risky and hazardous patient experience to a professional and expertly managed process which has moved the outcome of success ever forwards. The fundamental relationship between  health professional and patient is one of trust and integrity. Taking the three main drivers of change this blog will demonstrate the new risks to healthcare.

Firstly, in other sectors, the impact of robotics and machine learning have altered the balance of manufacturing and logistics which are becoming increasingly automated. For example the decision by Foxconn, the main manufacturer of Apple’s iPhone to replace 500,000 production line workers with 1 million robots is case enough to see the emergence of an age of automation and machine based production.

Healthcare is also beginning to rely on more machines. The introduction of discrete keyhole surgery and human controlled robots has also entered the healthcare industry. The Da Vinci robot has delivered a highly successful role in assisting humans in complex surgery including prostate, and machines are becoming more commonplace throughout the healthcare system.

In the fields of artificial intelligence and big data there is an increasing use of partnerships with Google and their DeepMind service and IBM with Watson to provide more powerful diagnosis and assistance with finding rare outcomes. Early days, but in North America these partnerships are longer established and an AI diagnosis can often challenge or be more accurate than that of a medical professional on an anecdotal level.

With the near future promising further automation and even autonomous machines replacing surgeons in common operations the widening of risk in an ever longer supply chain is inevitable.

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In the current model the relationship is largely binary. A future model extends the supply chain and risk to AI (artificial intelligence) diagnosis, the surgeon may then perform the operation at a different physical location using a remote machine. How that machine is calibrated or open to external hackers can affect the success. What the software controlling the robot is able to do reliably may well spread risk onto the coders or systems analysts who originally designed the automated software. In all, the supply chain becomes more complex with higher potential for new risks but if these are mitigated, the ability to perform more clinical procedures becomes possible.

Secondly the propensity of anonymous and sometimes identifiable patient data is causing society to question who is the safe pair of hands to do the right thing. Do we trust The Government or Department of Health who through a digital information revolution are catching up with Tesco to know more about us than ever before. Are the national partners such as IBM with Watson or Google DeepMind suitable to analyse our data or even build a global data model as they partner with other countries? At individual level the proliferation of health wearables which analyse our every step and in some cases, our every breath brings a hyper-personalised type of data. Carefully crafted user agreements sometimes give the manufacturers of wearables carte blanche to use our data as they see fit.

Who would want our personal health data and what advantage would this bring? In a hybrid model of private and public health, insurers will want to know more about us to provide accurate premiums. In parts of North America several healthcare providers are already offering customers discounts if they share the wearable data with them – and do the mandatory 10,000 steps a day to keep the discount.

Could there be a tipping point in the next two decades where the accuracy of wearables becomes interchangeable with the measurements in healthcare and contributes to a proactive rather than reactive system that may well be the only chance possible for a future national health service?

Finally a blurring between the healthcare and cosmetics industry is very likely as the promise of living to 150 and looking youthful well into your 70s becomes the marketing message of a largely unregulated beauty industry. As the barriers of raw computing power reduces and understanding of DNA, genomes and physiology increases we could see a new type of organisation with one foot in pharma and the other in beauty offering youthful promises. Many futuristic dystopian movies crafted in Hollywood depict a world of science which delivers risky and dangerous procedures on an unsuspecting population, but without the right controls we could well arrive here in the next two or three decades.

Are we sleepwalking into a future where we have few rights on our own data and become allured by the next miracle treatment to eternal youth? Maybe this seems a long way off but if the foundations are not laid now we may be entering a dystopian future that we may well regret.


The views expressed here are of BLM’s in-house futurist Mike Ryan. He can be contacted and followed as he curates the future on twitter with his handle @mikemanchester.

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