Imagine being paralyzed and having an implanted microchip that could action a message from your brain to move your prosthetic arm. Or a diagnostic system that could pick up Alzheimer’s a decade before you develop any symptoms. Or a 3D printing machine that could print a pill with a combination of drugs tailored just for you.
Sound far-fetched? Then meet Dr Daniel Kraft, a Harvard-trained oncologist-cum-entrepreneur-cum-healthcare futurologist. The faculty chair for medicine and founder of Exponential Medicine at the Silicon Valley-based Singularity University, no one could be more serious – or ambitious – about the revolutionary impact that technology will have on the future of healthcare.
The internet of things, constant connectivity, ever cheaper hardware, big data, machine learning: Kraft’s list of converging “meta-trends” goes on. “This set of technologies, especially when meshed together, offers a real opportunity to reshape and reinvent healthcare around the planet,” he says.
Kraft’s vision is of a patient-centred, tech-led healthcare system (as opposed to “sickcare”, as he defines the current system) that promises to turn the medical world on its head. But what implications does it hold for future business of healthcare?
Big pharma is one of the first in line for a shake-up, Kraft warns. Today drug firms’ profits are based on blockbuster drugs for pervasive diseases. But what if medical science reveals (as it is doing) that there are really hundreds of sub-types of diabetes, say, or lung cancer? And what if a patient’s full genome sequence can show the likelihood of a blockbuster treatment not working?
“There’s a spectrum of diseases with different molecular pathways and pharma is going to have to adapt to smaller markets in terms of individual drugs,” Kraft says.
On the flipside, the prospect of people being able to take part in clinical trials on their smartphones promises to drastically speed up the time drugs can get to market. Prescribing an app along with a pill will also become commonplace, he suggests, enabling patients to keep on track with their medicine and adjust their dosage if required. Both potentially promise big returns for the pharmaceutical industry.
Drug distribution is set for a radical overhaul too. Digital device manufacturers are already experimenting with so-called “implantables” that use bioelectric sensors to track patients’ vital signs and release a drug dose as and when required. At the other end of the spectrum, drones are now being used to deliver drugs to remote areas or disaster zones. Matternet, one of 50 or so start-up firms to have spun out of Singularity University, has been doing exactly that in Haiti recently.
Kraft warns that radical change is afoot for healthcare providers as well. Imagine a scenario where patients can compare the results of different hospitals or even individual doctors? Or where patients don’t need to come to a clinic once a month for an electrocardiogram but instead wear a smart Band-Aid “patch” that sends the same information 24/7 to their doctor’s surgery? Patient power, in other words.