Can you imagine a society in which diseases, and the pain and suffering they cause, simply do not exist, in which people are healthy until end-of-life? Such a society is within the realm of scientific possibility, but it won’t happen with the existing approaches to health care. Our health care system is broken. Its problems are far more profound and difficult than the short-term financial and social problems that Obamacare promises to fix. Of course, we have to get to universal health care in some fashion, but we have to get there in a way that is affordable and that is sustainable. The way we go about that today is not viable.
U. S. expenditure on health care is approaching 20% of gross national product and, if something isn’t done, it will REACH 30% of the GNP within 10 years. We can’t afford that. Despite this escalating and out-of-control spending, people are not living more healthfully. As quickly as we cure one disease, or its symptoms, a new one erupts. The drugs we produce help some people, but are ineffective or harmful to others. We are forced to create new antibiotics as bacteria become resistant to the old ones. A large percentage of our health care expenditure is spent to extend the lives of our elderly maintaining unacceptable life styles. What’s the problem?
The approach of the medical establishment to health care is to cure disease, and yet the potential exists, given the appropriate focus and funding, to eliminate most diseases. I didn’t say cure, I said eliminate. I have been told by responsible authorities that every disease is actionably preventable. What a powerful statement this is.
From the time of birth, the human body is a mess. Our bodies, even the healthy ones, are loaded with viruses, bad bacteria, toxins, and mutated or otherwise corrupted cells. Similarly our environment is filled with undesirable pollutants. When our immune system and other repair-or-replace mechanisms are working, they keep these baddies in check. We say, in this case, that our bodies are “healthy”. When we exhibit any of a myriad of combinations of symptoms, we describe our bodies as “diseased”. Modern medicine, for the most part, treats these symptoms. But neither of these characterizations, “healthy” or “diseased,” is absolute. A person may be infected for days with a rhino-virus, for example, before feeling an itchy throat and starting to sneeze – typical symptoms of the onset of a common cold. Cancer cells can multiply in an otherwise healthy body for years before showing any overt evidence of their existence. The threshold between healthy and diseased doesn’t really exist; it’s a continuum.
To further complicate matters, the effort of the repair systems in the body to work on a specific escalating issue like an airborne virus that is breathed in, dilutes the ability of these mechanisms to manage other issues that are otherwise benign. The immune system, for example, becomes less effective at keeping these other issues in check because it has been “overloaded”.
We try to detect these nascent diseases and stop them by having periodic medical examinations. Insofar as these exams discipline people to see a doctor who use the exams to establish a baseline picture of their health, they can be useful. However, for the purpose of anticipating diseases, early enough to stop them, they are almost worthless. Why?
We humans come in all shapes, sizes, and varieties. A low pulse rate can be a sign of excellent health for one person and a danger signal for another. A particular blood pressure can be perfectly normal for one individual and life-threatening for another. Our DNA programs us differently as to our susceptibility to the undesirable elements in our bodies and in the environment. Modern medicine tends to define normal ranges that are too wide to be useful in describing the early onset of disease. To do this properly, there has to be a detailed picture of what is “normal” for each individual.
Suppose it was possible do a complete physical examination on a person every minute. Suppose the sensors that measure a person’s vital signs were sensitive enough to detect the onset of diabetes, or a few cancer cells, or the beginnings of inflammation, before any part of that person’s body was affected. What if the data from that exam could be correlated with the person’s history, genome, and a database comprising the histories of hundreds of millions of other people? If we could do these things, the treatment of these vestigial diseases could be targeted with precision, and far less invasion, than if the disease was allowed to progress to the point that the person was aware of it. Consider the onset of a cancer. Detection is the hard part. Once we know where the few cancer cells are, it’s often possible to zap them with a laser beam without affecting surrounding tissue. We pretty much know how to do the latter; the hard part is the detection.
This isn’t science fiction, it’s science. The key technologies are in detection and connection. While today’s science is about six orders of magnitude away from the ability to detect a few cancer cells, scientists are zeroing in on diseases like congestive heart failure, obesity and diabetes. Incubators at PhiloMetron and West Wireless, companies like Sotera Wireless, and hospitals like Palomar Medical Center are creating and testing practical devices stimulated by medical visionaries like Dr. Ben Kanter at Palomar. Qualcomm is conducting an X Prize competition, the winner of which will create a Star Trek like tri-corder. Deloitte predicts the U.S. market for devices like these will grow to $22 billion by 2015.
Wireless connection is available now, although cost of service will become an issue.
Wireless medical health is destined to become the next technology revolution.