Imagine a new future in healthcare

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We are on the cusp of a digital revolution that will change the future of healthcare forever, says Dr. Bertalan Meskó, The Medical Futurist. We have the right tools, technologies, and people in place to make it happen – but do we have the courage? Dr. Meskó is confident it can be done. 

We live in a world full of amazing and innovative breakthroughs. A 3D printed house? It’s possible! An Iron Man-like exoskeleton to help lift heavy weights? It exists for workers in South Korea. Self-driving vehicles? Already on the road around the world. Now we are on the cusp of a technology revolution for the future of healthcare – but is healthcare ready for the change?

Dr. Bertalan Meskó, The Medical Futurist and Director of the Medical Futurist Institute, joined Healthcare Transformers for an interactive session where he described how he believes science fiction-like technologies can become the reality for the advancement of medicine and healthcare, creating a brighter and more efficient future for us all. But first, Dr. Meskó took us on a trip to Mars. 

Exploring Mars to inspire healthcare solutions on Earth

He asked participants to imagine the near future when we colonize our neighboring planet. For the pioneers, it’s an incredible new feeling never experienced before – and one colonist is in their advanced spacesuit when something happens, and they can’t see properly. So, they call for medical help, just like back on Earth. But due to varying factors – the communications time lag, limited medical facilities, and resources on Mars, medical help is not ideal. In essence, someone from afar is making a decision about their health, they have no say in it, they don’t get much empathy and the care received  is not really customized or personalized to their needs, which makes all the difference in the world in getting the right treatment

This scenario is all too similar to actual events taking place here on earth across the globe. That astronaut on Mars is getting the same inefficient healthcare experience as a patient in one of our hospitals today. According to Dr. Meskó, it doesn’t have to be this way. 

There are five points he outlines to build a better healthcare system, not only for the future of healthcare but also on Earth right now:

  • Accessibility The system must be accessible both financially and physically to all. 
  • Personalization We are each unique metabolically, genomically, and in our lifestyles. 
  • Preventive Tactics It’s always cheaper to prevent than to treat. 
  • AI for Optimal Treatment For example, using artificial-augmented intelligence or surgical robots controlled from afar for advanced treatment when necessary
  • Human & Empathetic in Practice Our healthcare system has lost a lot of empathy in recent decades due to administration, and we need to win that back. 

A new healthcare contract needed for the 21st century

Of course, there is nothing really “revolutionary” about this list. Everything needed to build a better healthcare system is available right now. Which begs the question:  If we do know what needs to be done as a society, why hasn’t it been done yet? According to Dr. Meskó, it has to do with history. 

At the dawn of modern medicine, an implicit contract was drawn up between society and healthcare professionals. In essence, society asked healthcare professionals to guard the health of patients, and, in exchange, society promised to respect their autonomy and provide funding. This system worked well until the 21st century. Beyond this timeframe, the advent of global supply chains, Amazon, and social media broke down the traditional ways of disseminating information. Suddenly, patients had access to the same studies, data, and technologies that previously were only available to medical professionals. 

A new contract is needed for the future of healthcare, and that’s what Dr. Meskó calls digital health. 

In our modern world, we see evidence of the adoption of breakthrough new technologies in many industries, like transportation or energy. But this digital revolution hasn’t yet reached healthcare. 

Dr. Meskó and the Medical Futurist Institute believe there are three major reasons why:


1The healthcare ecosystem was not designed to be open to technological innovation.  Some fundamental challenges within healthcare can help explain this. First, there is a shortage of healthcare workers, with up to one-third of patients turned away because of the lack of time and patient empathy. In countries with socialized medicine, patients get access to healthcare, but there is not much money available for innovation. Conversely, in countries with private insurance systems, there’s plenty of innovation, but only for those wealthy enough to afford it. These existing gaps in access to healthcare will only be exacerbated when considering access to digital health innovation. What happens when only a few people can afford to buy a 3D bioprinter for liver tissue analysis, while others must wait for a donor organ for transplantation? Or if only a few can buy an advanced exoskeleton and have to go back to work after an accident, while others have the capacity and means to stay home for three to six months to recover? The way our current system is built within the digital revolution has the propensity to create a nightmarish ethical gap between the haves and have-nots – and that’s something we cannot allow to happen. 
2Healthcare workers are slow to adopt new technologies. One of the simplest technologies we have in healthcare is a stethoscope. It was invented in France in 1816 by René Laennec as a tube to augment the sound of the heart and lungs for physicians. Incredibly, no one wanted to use it because they wanted to practice the art of medicine without “gadgets.” Of course, eventually, we adopted the technology, but it took so much time. Nowadays, there are not just one or two but thousands of innovations coming out every day, every week. Our healthcare system is simply not prepared for such an influx of new technologies.
3It’s easy to be afraid of the unknown. Specifically, here we’re referring to the immense “threat” of automation and artificial intelligence. Once again, however, history provides a useful lesson. In the 1990s, chess grandmaster Gary Kasparov was defeated by a computer. Headlines claimed that chess was dead in the face of AI. What happened? Today, 600 million people play chess. Chess players use AI to be competitive. Chess coaches use AI to better prepare their students. Even casual players who watch tournaments use the evaluation of AI to begin to understand the minds of grandmasters. In short, AI has made chess bettermore popular, and more competitive.  Dr. Meskó believes the same fate awaits healthcare – if we can overcome our fears. Just as we cannot play 4 million chess games in 4 hours, we cannot check a million CT scans looking for signs of cancer or look at millions of patient medical records to find unusual associations that no research or clinician has ever thought of. Dr. Mesko believes that AI will not replace medical professionals – but those medical professionals that use AI for enhanced proficiency and the best treatment will replace those that do not.

A cultural transformation that includes the patient and technology at its core

What this all means is that the future of healthcare is not facing so much a technological revolution as a cultural transformation. The traditional doctor-patient hierarchy is evolving into a more equal partnership, and this will have a much bigger impact on healthcare than the newest technological tool. 

The real story of digital health is that it will move the point of care to wherever patients are. Diagnosis, monitoring, or treatments – plus patient data – will arrive at the point of care before the patient even physically moves. 

Dr. Meskó’s vision is that we must remove every interface from that doctor-patient relationship, leaving just two people to have a real-life conversation that builds trust with empathy and compassion. In the meantime, they should be surrounded by advanced seamless invisible technologies like chatbots, AI, and portable diagnostic devices for more connection, care, and immediate treatment.

Back on Mars, the hypothetical astronaut would want a healthcare system that is preventative, personalized, augmented, accessible, and more humanistic than ever. They would want a system that makes sure that no one suffers from side effects, bad decisions, or the lack of information. For Dr. Meskó, that is a vision that’s worth fighting for, not just on Mars, but here on Earth. And not just tomorrow, but right now, today. 


Three insights to stay in alignment with major trends around digital health

1Embrace a patient design approach. Most hospitals and care centers claim to be “patient-centered” but patient-centricity is really a passive process. It means including the opinion or feedback of patients if we want it. In these situations, the patients are often passive elements in the process and their opinions are not considered. In contrast, “patient design” means an open-minded approach where we involve patients at the highest levels of decision-making and develop decisions with their health and well-being at the forefront.   
2Allow good technologies to augment what we do for advanced treatment. The fact is, roles are changing. Physicians are no longer holders of the keys to the ivory tower of medicine but are rather guides for their patients in the jungle of information. Patients are moving from being passive stakeholders waiting for a symptom to appear before asking for medical help to becoming proactive, engaged, and empowered. New tools are at our disposal: analytics, artificial intelligence, smartphone apps, portable diagnostic devices, and variable sensors. This creates new tensions and new challenges but also presents a new opportunity to improve the relationship. 
3Healthcare has been becoming globalized because of digital health.  Nowadays, it’s possible for a Japanese patient to submit cancerous tissue for biopsy sequencing to a Belgian startup and look for a clinical trial on the US Cloud service. This means more precise treatment for their kind of cancer, which may lead to a cure thanks to the globalization of healthcare due to increased access to information and innovative technology


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