The future? Maybe. Credit: Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Getting the Future of Healthcare Wrong

Kim Bellard

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Sure, there’s lots of A.I. hype to talk about (e.g., the AI regulation proposed by Chuck Schumer, or the latest updates from Microsoft, Google, and OpenAI) but a recent column by Wall Street Journal tech writer Christopher Mims — What I Got Wrong in a Decade of Predicting the Future of Tech — reminded me how easily we get overexcited by such things.

I did my own mea culpa about my predictions for healthcare a couple of years ago, but since Mr. Mims is both smarter and a better writer than I am, I’ll use his structure and some of his words to try to apply them to healthcare.

Mr. Mims offers five key learnings:

1. Disruption is overrated

2. Human factors are everything

3. We’re all susceptible to this one kind of tech B.S.

4. Tech bubbles are useful even when they’re wasteful

5. We’ve got more power than we think

Let’s take each of these in turn and see how they relate not just to tech but also to healthcare.

Disruption is overrated

“It’s not that disruption never happens,” Mr. Mims clarifies. “It just doesn’t happen nearly as often as we’ve been led to believe.” Well, no kidding. I’ve been in healthcare for longer than I care to admit, and I’ve lost count of all the “disruptions” we were promised.

The fact of the matter is that healthcare is a huge part of the economy. Trillions of dollars are at stake, not to mention millions of jobs and hundreds of billions of profits. Healthcare is too big to fail, and possibly too big to disrupt in any meaningful way.

If some super genius came along and offered us a simple solution that would radically improve our health but slash more than half of that spending and most of those jobs, I honestly am not sure we’d take the offer. Healthcare likes its disruption in manageable gulps, and disruptors often have their eye more on their share of those trillions than in reducing them.

For better or worse, change in healthcare usually comes in small increments.

Yeah, most disruption is just talk. Credit: Eden Constantino on Unsplash

Human factors are everything

“But what’s most often holding back mass adoption of a technology is our humanity,” Mr. Mims points out. “The challenge of getting people to change their ways is the reason that adoption of new tech is always much slower than it would be if we were all coldly rational utilitarians bent solely on maximizing our productivity or pleasure.”

Boy, this hits the healthcare head on the nail. If we all simply ate better, exercised more, slept better, and spent less time on our screens, our health and our healthcare system would be very different. It’s not rocket science, but it is proven science.

But we don’t. We like our short-cuts, we don’t like personal inconvenience, and why skip the Krispy Kreme when we can just take Wegovy? Figure out how to motivate people to take more charge of their health: that’d be disruption.

We’re all susceptible to this one kind of tech B.S.

Mr. Mims believes: “Tech is, to put it bluntly, full of people lying to themselves,” although he is careful to add: “It’s usually not malicious.” That’s true in healthcare as well. I’ve known many healthcare innovators, and almost without exception they are true believers in what they are proposing. The good ones get others to buy into their vision. The great ones actually make some changes, albeit rarely quite as profoundly as hoped.

But just because someone believes something strongly and articulates very well doesn’t mean it’s true. I’d like to see significant changes as much as anyone, and more than most, and I know I’m too often guilty of looking for what Mr. Mims calls “the winning lottery ticket” when it comes to healthcare innovation, even though I know the lottery is a sucker’s bet.

To paraphrase Ronald Reagan (!), hope but verify.

Tech bubbles are useful even when they’re wasteful

Healthcare has its bubbles as well, many but not all of them tech related. How many health start-ups over the last twenty years can you name that did not survive, much less make a mark on the healthcare system? How many billions of investments do they represent?

But, as Mr. Mims recounts Bill Gates once saying, “most startups were “silly” and would go bankrupt, but that the handful of ideas — he specifically said ideas, and not companies — that persist would later prove to be “really important.”’

The trick, in healthcare as in tech, is separating the proverbial wheat from the chaff, both in terms of what ideas deserve to persist and in which people/organizations can actually make them work. There are good new ideas out there, some of which could be really important.

Finding the right idea matters. Credit: Bing Image Creator

We’ve got more power than we think

Many of us feel helpless when encountering the healthcare system. It’s too big, too complicated, too impersonal, and too full of specialized knowledge for us to have the kind of agency we might like.

Mr. Mims advice, when it comes to tech is: “Collectively, we have agency over how new tech is developed, released, and used, and we’d be foolish not to use it.” The same is true with healthcare. We can be the patient patients our healthcare system has come to expect, or we can be the assertive ones that it will have to deal with.

I think about people like Dave deBronkart or the late Casey Quinlan when it comes to demanding our own data. I think about Andrea Downing and The Light Collective when it comes to privacy rights. I think about all the biohackers who are not waiting for the healthcare system to catch up on how to apply the latest tech to their health. And I think about all those patient advocates — too numerous to name — who are insisting on respect from the healthcare system and a meaningful role in managing their health.

Yes, we’ve got way more power than we think. Use it.

Mr. Mims is humble in admitting that he fell for some people, ideas, gadgets, and services that perhaps he shouldn’t. The key thing he does, though, to use his words, is “paying attention to what’s just over the horizon.” We should all be trying to do that, and doing our best to prepare for it.

My horizon is what a 22nd century healthcare system could, will and should look like. I’m not willing to settle for what our early 21st century one does. I expect I’ll continue to get a lot wrong but I’m still going to try.

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Kim Bellard

Curious about many things, some of which I write about — usually health care, innovation, technology, or public policy. Never stop asking “why” or “why not”!