Creatively Destroying Medicine

kablooeyMed tech has a long history of boom and bust. But yesterday, at a stellar half-day conference in Mountain View called Strictly Mobile, listening to famed cardiologist Eric Topol address the crowd, it was easy to believe that the pattern will be shattered. In fact, Topol, author of “The Creative Destruction of Medicine,” argued persuasively why little about today’s healthcare system will look the same in less than a decade.

Receiving remote medical care is already becoming more common as technologies improve, as he noted. Startups like American Well and Doctors on Demand produce apps that allow users to video-chat with doctors to get medical help in real time. Scanadu makes a puck-shaped scanner that’s packed with sensors designed to read your vital signs, including heart rate, blood pressure, temperature, and blood oxygen levels. (The company, which recently began shipping the product, halted production last week to fix a manufacturing glitch.)

Other companies hoping to make traditional medical instruments obsolete include EyeNetra, whose device, the Netra-G, can measure the refractive error of the eye using a smartphone and a cheap pair of plastic binoculars that anyone can use. (The alternative: a $5,000 machine called an autorefractor.) Similarly, CellScope turns a smartphone into an otoscope that provides a magnified view of the middle ear, allowing parents to see for themselves whether their child has an ear infection — instead of first dragging him to the doctor’s office.

Naturally, there are plenty of obstacles between now and the day when hospitals can focus on therapeutics and leave more of the diagnostics to us. For one thing, not everyone wants to know more about their health. (Scanadu cofounder Sam De Brouwer, who was also at the conference, attributed such attitudes to consumers’ “lack of tools.” Noting that the only medical tool in most homes, still, is a thermometer, she suggested that people will grow very attracted to medical apps once they realize their power. “There’s something deeply fascinating about our body,” she told the assembled attendees.)

A much bigger obstacle, said Topol, is the American Medical Association, which has a vested interest in maintaining the status quo and that has one of the largest lobbying budgets in the U.S.

Here, Topol suggested that the best shot at change will come from directly from consumers demanding it, along with “employers with big-time purchasing power.” It’s an uprising that Topol fully expects as more information about healthcare costs becomes available. (Steven Brill’s 26,000-word piece in Time last year, highlighting the exorbitant prices we pay for hospital gauze and Tylenol tablets, was a good start, Topol noted.)

A cynic might say that the picture Topol paints sounds too rosy and lacks specifics. Indeed, asked about the legal liabilities for already risk-averse doctors, Topol’s answer seemed optimistic. Doctors who’ve been freed by new technologies will likely develop stronger relationships with their patients, making them less inclined to sue, Topol suggested.

Investors could also lose interest in digital health if it doesn’t take off fairly quickly. As veteran health care investor Terry McGuire of Polaris Ventures told me back in January, ““On the life sciences side, billion-dollar exits aren’t as common as on the tech side … So you go through these wonderful moments as now, when everyone is again a healthcare investor, but in three years, they won’t be.”

I hope the skeptics are wrong. It was exhilarating to hear someone talk about mobile technologies that can help patients and doctors do so much more. The doctor will Skype me now? I’m ready.

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