I just read a good article in The Washington Post by Vivek Wadhwa about the future of medicine. I’m glad that the author used the word “future” instead of present and “medicine” instead of health care. “Health care” is a phrase that has strong connotations, both positive and negative. It brings to mind Obamacare and the current crisis of cost on the one hand and access on the other.
Being a future optimist like myself is a dangerous thing. The future can seem rosy, especially without the day-to-day complications of implementing new technology and systems. But I base my optimism on clear markers, like the many positive health trends in the developing world (the obesity epidemic being the most noteworthy exception).
Wadhwa points to several things that may make the future of medicine much brighter:
Information: If we want “information about an ailment we search on the Internet. We have access to more medical knowledge than our doctors used to have via their medical books and journals, and our information is more up-to-date than those medical books were.”
Technology: “Wearable devices such as Fitbit, Nike, and Jawbone are commonly being used to monitor the intensity of our activity; a heart monitor such as one from Alivecor can display our electrocardiogram; several products on the market can monitor our blood pressure, blood glucose, blood oxygen, respiration, and even our sleep.”
Real Time Medical Research: “Artificial intelligence technologies will also be able to analyze continual data from millions of patients and on the medications that they have taken to determine which of these truly had a positive effect; which simply created adverse reactions and new ailments; and which did both. This will transform the way in which drugs are tested and prescribed.”
Personal Genomics: “Today a full human genome sequence costs as little as $1,000. At the rate at which prices are dropping, it will cost less within five years than a blood test does today. So it is now becoming affordable to compare one person’s DNA with another’s, learn what diseases those with similar genetics have had in common, and discover how effective different medications or other interventions were in treating them.”
Biotech Breakthroughs: “Entrepreneurs have developed software tools to “design” DNA. These technologies provide the ability to generate designer drugs, therapeutic vaccines, and microorganisms. Like all technologies that modify fundamental biology without a complete understanding of how environment, DNA, protein production, and cell biology interact, this introduces new risks because we could engineer dangerous new organisms. But, used appropriately, this field may dramatically affect the development of novel, and more effective, therapeutics.”
We have a zillion things to fix in our medical system, which seems to get worse, not better. Nonetheless, these and other breakthroughs can only help. And let’s not forget that we’re living longer, healthier lives because medicine is getter better, after all. I hope the medical improvements Wadhwa wrote about do for us what vaccines, public health infrastructure improvements, and treated bed nets have done for the developing world.