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Forget personal — the future of health is contextual

I have always been fascinated by cultures that excel at systemic thinking and that deeply understand how an individual is always part of a bigger whole. The Chinese, for instance, view a person as the sum of his relations, merely a node in a web of intricately connected threads. Some cultures, like the animistic ones, go even further and do away with the distinction between the spiritual and physical (or material) world: they believe that sentience does not only exist in humans, but also in other animals, plants, geographic features such as mountains or rivers or other entities of the natural environment, including thunder, wind and shadows. Whatever you think of this conviction there is no denying that the love of our pets, a reinvigorating forest walk or being drenched by heavy rainfall does impact our health, emotions and general sense of wellbeing. Or that, with the Internet of Smart Things, that view might ver well soon become an undeniable truth.

It’s safe to say that humans are highly contextual beings, yet western science tends to treat them as self-contained entities. But — especially in health(care) — that is about to change in a major way.

The next big leap after personalized and preventive

Remember that a few years ago, the major buzzword in healthcare — like in a lot of sectors — was “personalized”? Our diets, our exercise schedule, the treatment of our diseases: they would all be tailored to our genetic architecture or microbiome. And let’s not forget the accompanying preventive evolution from diagnostic ‘sick care’ to actual healthcare: by continuously measuring our bodily functions — heart rhythm, temperature, glucose levels, eye-sight, etc. — we would be able to predict and prevent diseases before they even happened and performed any damage.

These were — and still are — very powerful developments that hold the promise of an entire new take on healthcare. One which will prove very challenging for the current business models of pharma companies and hospitals. The quite cynical reason for that is that they actually count on us being sick to ‘sell’ as many beds, surgeries, pills, syringes, etc. as possible.

Though this personal and proactive approach is exciting, the next one — a contextual approach to healthcare — will probably enable an even bigger leap.

A social take on health

One of the most mind-blowing company visits I ever had the chance to partake in was at iCarbonX in China. Now China, as I explained above, is one of those collectivist society types. And as a consequence, the Chinese tend to be more ‘holistic’ in the way they think about problems, focusing on the relationships and the context of the situation at hand. So it should not come as a surprise that iCarbonX looks beyond the individual body to “create a mathematical model for human health and get rid of disease”, as Yingrui Li, their Chief Scientist, so ambitiously put it.

iCarbonX is above all a data company: it combines and measures internal molecular biology data (DNA, proteins, metabolites, small organic molecules), external environmental factors (like smart car data or smart home data like room temperature, bacteria, air quality, humidity), physical data from our vital signs (blood, heart rate, sugar levels) behaviour and lifestyle data (from smart devices and mobile healthcare devices) and — perhaps the most surprising thing of them all — social data (it was negotiating a deal with Tencent about that when we visited them). They move far beyond the traditional medical and health data to offer a much more holistic and deeply contextual view on health, and all the things that have an impact it.

Now, in order to have access to these data, iCarbonX has to collaborate with several vertical domains — like hospitals, gym clubs or even social tech companies — that are not in the habit of collaborating, let alone share their data. Again, we see their social and holistic approach, bringing together parties to build their “model for healthcare” together, instead of each struggling from their side, lacking all the necessary data. “One of the most important challenges is to convince those vertical companies to collaborate, and to be able to bring all of these data together and analyse them”, Yingrui Li openly told us.

Giving up privacy for the greater good

But the contextual part of healthcare goes beyond that: it’s not only that we need to measure the (social) environment of each individual to understand his medical profile on top of his/her vital signs, it’s that we need to string together the data of many, many … many individuals to be able to uncover certain patterns that will help us understand what exactly are the triggers of the diseases that we were not yet be able to solve. iCarbonX perfectly understands this, gathering as much information, from as much sides as possible.

Of course, this approach will entice a major mind shift, as a lot of people will be very concerned about their privacy. But change is happening. More and more individuals are willing to give up (parts of) their privacy, for the greater good (including themselves, of course, who might one day need a certain cure). There’s for instance the intriguing example of Nebula Genomics, that will give people free (well, you have to pay first, but you can earn your money back with some kind of credit system) genome reports if they answer detailed questions about their health, drinking habits, and more and if they allow them to sell information about them to drug companies. It’s a clever way to gather the massive amount of data needed to understand certain complex diseases.

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Laurence Van Elegem

Laurence Van Elegem

What’s next for society, technology & organizations? #SystemsThinking #Complexity

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