Editor’s note: This op-ed originally appeared on LiveScience, as part of a series provided by the World Economic Forum Technology Pioneers, class of 2015. Dr. Anmol Madan contributed this article to Live Science’s Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights. View the original article here.
Possibly the most complex system that health-technology developers face today has nothing to do with hardware, software or even human behavior — rather, it’s the U.S. health care system.
I’m a data scientist by training and by trade, and we’re very pragmatic people. We identify problems, peel back the layers of complexity to look for a root cause, and develop a systematic way of addressing the problem to build a better solution for the future.
In health care, however, those layers are much more intricate, and surprisingly few people can agree on what the “problem” actually is, much less the solution.
From my experience developing Ginger.io and building mental health innovation into health care delivery, I have learned that adoption of these three reforms are critical for the global health care community to scale its impact and provide the right care for those who need it.
1. Embrace technology
We are fortunate enough to live in a time of great technological advancement. This has come in the form of machine learning, 3D printing, predictive analytics, advanced optics, impossibly small sensors and all-around computational power. But when it comes to health care, technology has clearly surpassed the ability of research to keep pace.
Hospitals and doctors are adopting new technologies as they become clinically and commercially viable, but convoluted and burdensome systemic pressures — such as competing incentives, byzantine payment models and legal hurdles — have stymied the pace of innovation. This not only increases the time it takes for these new technologies to enter the market, but also can be a major deterrent to new entrepreneurs — a barrier to entry in an industry that is arguably the most worthy of innovation and human ingenuity: saving lives. [Surgeon’s Helper: 3D Printing Is Revolutionizing Health Care (Op-Ed)]
Nations have the tools to create a much healthier global population, but they’re missing clear opportunities to leverage technological solutions in response to global health threats such as malaria, heart disease and depression. The global community must invest in helping entrepreneurs tackle these difficult problems and navigate the complicated bureaucratic structures currently in place.
2. Give patients the tools to self-manage
We’re now living in an era defined by self-service. People prefer ATMs and smartphones to banks, online shopping to brick-and-mortar stores, and Wikipedia to libraries. When younger generations get sick today, they are more likely to visit WebMD.com or perform a quick Google search to understand their symptoms long before they reach the doors of a doctor’s office. This represents a huge shift and a serious opportunity for both patients and providers of health care. [9 DIY Ways to Improve Your Mental Health]
Research from Accenture shows that more than 90 percent of patients want to self-manage their health care through technology. This includes managing their data and health care records, of course, but it also extends to managing chronic and acute health conditions. In fact, mobile applications analysts at research2guidance estimate that 1.7 billion people will have downloaded health apps by 2017, adding up to an impressive $26 billion global industry.
For patients, the value is clear: Credible information can empower those who hold it to feel more confident in managing their condition and offer some guidance as to when and how to engage with the health care system, improving outcomes and access to health care services in the process.
These activated and engaged patients also benefit health care providers. When patients are empowered to self-manage their condition, there are many beneficial ripple effects: Strain on the system is decreased; emergency departments no longer act as triage units for people in stable condition; and doctors can focus on being doctors, instead of hospital administrators or reimbursement accountants.
3. Address mental health, head on
At some point in modern history, the health care community decided to separate the treatment of mental health from the treatment of physical health. Fortunately, the pendulum is starting to swing back the other way, and we’re coming to realize what people knew long ago: The mind-body connection is very real and very symbiotic. [For Mental Health, Social Media Removes the Silence (Op-Ed) ]
Addressing mental health is crucial to helping patients manage their physical health, especially when it comes to chronic conditions such as diabetes, cancer and heart disease, the latter of which can have depression rates of up to 60 percent. The existence of depression in combination with chronic diseases is shown to dramatically reduce the quality of health outcomes while also driving up costs by an average of $505 per patient per month, according to actuarial consulting firm Milliman.
But the impacts are not only for chronic diseases. Robert Gatchel of the University of Texas has estimated that more than 70 percent of all primary care visits stem from a psychological issue. Primary care is often referred to as “the front lines of health care,” where the average primary care provider will see the full spectrum of mental health conditions (ranging from depression and anxiety to substance abuse and psychiatric disorders) in just one week.
Ask anyone to think about a time when he or she was sad or angry or anxious. Ask them how those feelings manifested physically. You’ll get an immediate response about heart rate, body temperature, posture or pain in a very real sense. Any perceived separation between mental and physical health by health care providers is negligent at best, and downright dangerous at its worst.
As a global society, we have enough tools to “fix” many aspects of health care today. The practice of medicine will always be an evolving science, as the human body is an infinitely complicated and beautiful system. But we can take real steps to improve the standard of care today.
To do so, we must act with a higher degree of urgency in bringing new products and solutions to market, and we must dedicate real resources to applying advanced technologies to the life sciences.
It’s just a matter of having the will to stand up to an entrenched system and shout: “There is a better way!”