SXSW 2012: The Future of Digital Health

Note, this is cross-posted from the Klick Health blog. I’m posting it here for archival reasons.

South by Southwest is an annual festival of interactive tech, film, and music that started back in 1992 in Austin, Texas. I’ve been coming every year since 2005, and have seen the interactive part of the festival grow from roughly 3000 nerds to nearly 30,000 marketing, culture, agency, government and startup people. There are over 5000 events, talks, and panel discussions this year. With the massive growth has come both diversification and specificity. There are now specific conference tracks for politics, social causes, developers, designers, and for the first time, health care. I’ve been following that track closely, and am going to share a couple of broad trends and observations I gleaned.

Health vs Healthcare

There is a distinct lack of agreement on what we’re talking about when we say “healthcare”. To some, the phrase means “treatment”. To others, it means “wellness”.  In other words: does “healthcare” include preventative actions, stretching from education to urban planning to food policy?

Sensors, sensors, everywhere! “Mobile” is not another word for “smartphone”

Sensors will soon be everywhere. From our phones to our shoes to embedded in our bodies, we will be collecting personal data through everyday activity. Imagine a tooth implant that analyzes the nutritional value of your meal as you chew. Or a watch that measures your stress level. There are huge privacy issues to consider, but the potential for positive behaviour changes that emerge make the effort worthwhile

Successful behaviour changes when we can make informed decisions in the moment. Craving can be mitigated with up to the minute data. The smaller we can make the feedback loop, the more motivating force it presents.

There will be huge technical and design opportunities emerging in this space. In very short order, our definition of “mobile” will need to expand to include devices like Nike’s new Fuel bracelet and Google’s soon to be released head’s up display.

Gaming and health

This is a biggie. Nearly every health related panel included a nod to gaming in one way or another. Why? Engagement. Games tap into something hard wired in our neurology. They hold our attention like few other experiences. I could (and may) write a book on the subject, and can’t possibly do justice to the topic in this overview. Suffice it to say that between sensor driven real world activities (the human joystick) to virtual worlds designed to keep seniors socially engaged, there are a multitude of ways games and game mechanics are becoming integrated into healthcare. Watch this space for future posts on the subject.

Disruptive Stress

Peter Diamandis, the founder of the X Prize, used the phrase “disruptive stress” in his talk on abundance. He was referring to the gap between our human, linear experience and the exponential rate of change presented by information technology. Ray Kurzweil, in his keynote, extended the idea. This is a deep, complex problem, and one worth wrapping our head’s around. I’ll try to summarize it like this:

We humans are very bad at predicting the future, because we look from the present into the past, note the changes, and predict those same changes forward. We are terrible at remembering how things really were, and tend to wildly over attribute present day conditions to past situations. We tend to experience the world in a very linear way, even while the changes around us are happening at a greater rate.

Combine our innate difficulty in prediction with the exponential nature of technology, and we’re simply not naturally equipped to understand what the world of 2022 will look like. Note that I used the phrase “naturally equipped”. It’s not that we can’t predict the future, just that it we have to learn how to do it.

A few examples of exponential technology that will cause disruptive stress?  Biology is now an information technology. Gene therapies are coming online today, and in 10 years will dramatically change the healthcare landscape. Moore’s law (cost and size of microprocessors halve every 18 months) and nanotech will allow us to create devices that live in our bloodstream, actively boosting our natural defences in 20 years. Advances in artificial intelligence and robotics will change the way healthcare and patient support is delivered. Technologies like Siri, from Apple, hint at the very near future.

The digital revolution is coming

The same forces that changed the entertainment industry are marshalling at the base of healthcare. It’s early days, and the healthcare world has plenty of reason to move cautiously. But the move will come, and it will be driven by patients. The points I made above do not exist in isolation; sensors + gaming + disruptive stress = a change in the fundamental ways individuals will engage in and consume healthcare and health services. Health care providers and funders need to get out in front of this change, and quickly. Think about how Apple toppled RIM, Microsoft, and IBM by creating consumer desire. The same thing has started in healthcare, and the rate of change will not be linear.

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