Health care is a scarce resource. Technology continues to evolve to better understand the complex system that is the human body. We can detect fractions of DNA in the blood released by tumors, we can image the human body at sub-millimeter resolution, however many of these technologies are available to the select few and often only when issues have already presented themselves.
The Star Trek techno-future we’ve all seen in movies has hand held devices that scan you head to toe pulling up a patient’s history, vitals and a list of identified issues. While it would be easy to brush this off as artistic effect, I believe this is what a world with post scarcity health care looks like. There are still doctors, there are still hospitals and diagnostic machines but access to them is abundant. Nobody is waiting for time with the tricorder. A world like this is closer than you might think.
There are many things contributing to today’s health care scarcity. One of the biggest factors is that doctors take a long time to train, specialists in particular. The limiting factor then becomes brain power, not the level but how much. We have a finite number of doctors with a finite number of minutes in their day. As a result the amount of expressed medical knowledge is limited. This is what scarcity is, it’s not that doctors can’t do it, it’s that there is too much for them to be doing to give their best to everyone. In short, there aren’t enough people to deliver the same level of care to everyone all the time.
Training a clinician, in many ways takes a lifetime, but speaking pragmatically a doctor will need at least 10 years to become a specialist and many more to be at the cutting edge. This 10 year period is filled with a number of repeated decisions to choose one path over another, honing their skills to become masters of finding and treating disease. While all this is going on, the research world continues to make discoveries and create more knowledge, methods and specialties that all need experts to translate it into real outcomes. On top of this we have a growing demand that is not being matched by supply.
The burden on today’s health system is clear and countries are working hard to try and keep up. More clinicians are being trained and an increase in digital data storage and transfer is helping to make clinicians available at a national level. Despite this effort the demand on healthcare continues to outgrow supply. New treatments, screening tests and technologies lead to a growing demand for services, all of which require expert knowledge and time.
Sadly, even in countries like the USA, the country with the single largest per capita spending on health, there is a projected shortage in specialists . Looking at a smaller scale, health care scarcity is far worse for some than others. Even within what we would call ‘wealthy’ nations outcomes for the those of lower socioeconomic status is far worse than the average. This is through no malicious action, this is what scarcity looks like. When there isn’t enough of something, the majority of it goes to those who are willing to pay more. Our economy is built on this idea, and for sports cars and iPhones I’m all for it. For health care, I’m not.
The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed. — William Gibson
If ECON 101 taught me anything it’s that we can solve this problem in two ways. Firstly, we can artificially lower the cost of care by supplementing costs. Australia does this with Medicare, and other countries have their systems both public and private. This helps level the board in some ways but doesn’t touch on the core of the issue. There isn’t enough health care to go around.
The other solution is to drastically lower the financial and logistical cost of delivering health care. As in many other industries this comes from disruptive technology. Technology which makes a fundamental change to delivery and enables rapid growth as a result.This provides solution where the best health care humanity has to offer is available to everyone, all the time. A world where health care becomes about doctors and data working with us to keep us perpetually healthy, not just fix us when we break. That leads to what we need. A way to take the brain power of clinicians and replicate until there is enough for all, giving them the ability to bring health care to humanity. We do this by creating an Artificial, Intelligence.
At Maxwell we are looking to make this future happen, by applying Artificial Intelligence (AI) to medical data to give patients and clinicians the ability make health care a personal, ‘always on’ experience. Removing scarcity in health care.
Part 2 of this series will explore the ways in which AI is making an impact in health care today.