The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
Healthcare 2.0 Is On the Way (If Doctors Don't Stop It)

Surgeon-robots, apps that perform EKGs, wrist bands that monitor blood pressure, and predictive DNA sequencing. These are just a few of the new technologies poised to revolutionize the health care industry, says Jonathan Cohn’s excellent piece in this month’s Atlantic.

Cohn notes that until very recently most medical innovations were about creating new drugs or surgical procedures. These advances have improved the quality of care but left the basic inefficiencies of our healthcare delivery system in place.

Now health care innovation is increasingly about “accumulating, processing, and applying data.” Cohn argues (and we’ve long believed) that this data-and-distribution technology will completely disrupt the medical profession in the coming decades, giving us better, cheaper, and more effective health care.

Cohn’s piece is particularly strong on the way these innovations will reduce the role that doctors play in routine medical treatments, allowing health care professionals with less training to pick up the slack:

David Autor, an economist at MIT, has noted that for the past generation, technological change in the U.S. has tended to favor highly skilled workers at the expense of those with mid-level skills. Routine clerical functions, for instance, have been automated, contributing to the hollowing-out of the middle class. But in the coming years, health care may prove a large and important exception to that general rule—effectively turning the rule on its head [...]

“I don’t think physicians will be seeing patients as much in the future,” says David Lee Scher, a former cardiac electrophysiologist and the president of DLS Healthcare Consulting, which advises health-care organizations and developers of digital health-care technologies. “I think they are transitioning into what I see as super-quality-control officers, overseeing physician assistants, nurses, nurse-practitioners, etc., who are really going to be the ones who see the patients.”

The piece is full of good news, but it ends on an ominous note: The full benefits of this tech will never be realized unless the medical establishment agrees to let it in. Paraphrasing one medical tech expert, Cohn writers, “Watson [the Jeopardy-winning robot with medical applications] won’t change medicine, in other words, if the people who practice medicine don’t want it to change.”

The health care industry is full of groups who have a vested interest in the status quo, from doctors who resist tech that will increasingly take them out of the picture to hospitals that are content to make a lot of money by overcharging patients. The central policy goal for health care in the coming decade is to prevent these groups from getting in the way of progress.

Read the whole thing.

[Image of Doctor's Hands in Computer from Shutterstock]

Published on March 8, 2013 2:13 pm