High-Tech Healthcare: Don’t Believe the Hype

Will advanced technology transform and therefore save the American Healthcare System?  Will fancy wearable devices, mobile apps, and patient tracking software make Americans healthier?  Don’t count on it.

Silicon Valley experts are seeing a future in which doctors and patients alike are tracking health conditions in real time to ensure healthy habits and compliance with medicine and therapy treatment protocols.

Does all this sound too good to be true?!  Because it is.  High-tech will indeed change the practice of healthcare, but more by augmenting current norms, not revolutionizing it as predicted by tech gurus.  Sure, computers could make radiologists and pathologists obsolete by better interpreting blood labs, x-rays, CT and MRI scans, and pathology slides than humans can do.  Super computers can easily digest billions of data points much more easily than humans and thus can make a more accurate diagnosis for an ailing patient and in less time.  But is this the real problem with the American Healthcare System?  The answer is no.

America’s currently unsolved healthcare crisis is how to change the behaviors and attitudes of the American patient.  According to the Centers of Disease Control (CDC), 86% of all U.S. healthcare spending is for patients with chronic illness such as:  heart disease, diabetes, emphysema, arthritis, etc. 

How are we to make real solutions for these problems?  We need to drastically lower the number of Americans who suffer from these diseases by getting them to change their habits and lead a healthier lifestyle.  This lifestyle should include eating a healthy diet, exercising, not smoking, engaging in conservative pain management protocols such as chiropractic instead of opioids, and engaging in healthy stress management protocols.

Current studies suggest that no matter how fancy or ingenious the newest gizmo is, high-tech interventions have absolutely failed to improve patients’ health.  In one 2016 study in the journal, Lancet, researchers at Duke-NUS Medical School randomly assigned employees from 13 organizations to one of four groups, in an effort to encourage exercise.  One group got a Fitbit Zip tracker, two other groups got a Fitbit Zip tracker plus money that they could use for themselves, and the last group got no tracker.

Do you want to guess what happened?  The study found that the device increased moderate-to-vigorous activity by 20 – 30 minutes per week for the first six months, but only when cash incentives were in play.  When cash incentives were discontinued, physical activity returned to pre-intervention levels.

Again, technology is fantastic at aggregating data and turning it into useful information, but a lack of data is NOT the main challenge.  The real challenge lies in changing patients’ behaviors and habits before a health problem is even identified.  Prevention is key.  And as behavioral economics reminds us, information does NOT change behavior.  Smokers know that they shouldn’t smoke.  Obese people know that they should lose weight.  But this requires changing habits and daily routines and unfortunately the current data shows that the only way to change a patient’s behavior in a long-lasting way is by providing financial incentives.

Financial incentives are decidedly not high-tech, but what they are is high-touch and thus will remain the most effective prescription for treating America’s Healthcare Crisis.  Whether it’s by employers paying their employees more money to be healthier, or by insurance companies lowering their premiums for their healthier customers, America’s Healthcare Crisis will not be fixed by the latest tech breakthrough, or by finding the latest cure, but it CAN be solved by simple economics.  Business can be used as a force for good and with over 20% of the U.S. GDP tied up in healthcare, it needs to be.



*Emanuel, Ezekiel J., The Hype of Virtual Medicine, The Wall Street Journal, Saturday/Sunday, November 11 – 12, 2017