Networks, Cities, and Data: The Future of Better Healthcare

If you’re not convinced the future of healthcare has arrived, just wait a few days:  it should be coming to a mobile device or a big box store near you soon:

  • Light SpeedQuantified-self software by which you can monitor every bodily function and have the data integrated into your medical record.
  • Low-cost Genomic profiling to identify your disease risks.
  • Biomarker-directed personalized drugs that are optimally efficacious for your particular molecular sub-group of disease.
  • Self-help health maintenance tools to integrate all that bodily function monitoring and your genomics profile with the right drugs and food/exercise choices to slow or prevent disease onset.

I recently gave a talk at the UAE Forum on Information and Communication Technology Research 2014 in Abu Dhabi where I cautioned that—while that positive vision is approaching—we still face huge challenges that are not necessarily being addressed rapidly or systematically.

Obstacles, Big and Small

A few of the “immoveable objects” that delay progress include:

  • Research results that aren’t reproducible due to a lack of life sciences standards
  • A pitifully small number of validated biomarkers—the key to truly personalized medicine
  • Lack of a clear-cut, predictable, and cost-effective pathway from biomarkers to drugs that substantively change the course of disease
  • A biomedical industry that remains siloed and largely unable to effect seamless data interoperability
  • A huge data liquidity challenge due to the lack of standards and interoperability among EHRs, and between countless research and clinical databases.

Productivity and the Virtual City

If the healthcare system has inherent flaws that are preventing it from further evolution, could we look elsewhere for innovation?

Cities have been hubs of trade, commerce, and exchange of ideas for millennia.  It’s known that there is a super-linear bonus inherent in cities: when you increase the size of a city by 10 times, you boost productivity by 16 times.

While this is well-established in brick-and-mortar cities, could we create the same phenomenon in a virtual city to address healthcare challenges? Dave King, CEO of Exaptive Inc. proposes a new meaning for the term Cognitive Cities: In a cognitive city, individuals can be networked on a massive scale, and can work together on complex human problems of societal importance to produce insights, conduct experiments, and provide real-time dissemination of results in a continuous self-correcting cycle of knowledge. Seemingly unrelated people and data connect for serendipitous solutions, just as in a real city.  As the planet approaches 8 billion people, we could envision a global cognitive city that drives previously unimaginable innovation through unlimited computational power; concentrated domain expertise and cross-disciplinary interactions; the power of “crowd-sourcing.”

Suppose that instead of having 100 researchers studying a particular disease in a bricks and mortar city, we could multiple that by 1000 in a cognitive city? I’m wondering if you could then gain healthcare productivity on a truly unprecedented scale:

  • Instead of the current average of 1.5 validated and approved biomarkers a year, how about 150?  Or 1500?
  • Instead of the average of 27 drugs approved by FDA per year, how about 270?  How about 2,700?
  • Instead of 33 new devices and diagnostics approved by FDA per year, how about 330? Or 3,300?

Is this feasible?

Would you work in such a cognitive city to transform healthcare?

Let me know: