Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Internet and Serious Medicine

Tom Foremski, the always interesting editor of SiliconValleyWatcher, posts a "Happy Birthday, Internet" piece, noting the 40th anniversary fo the first e-mail, at UCLA, back in 1969.

Foremski, a Silicon Valley guy, makes a bold claim for the importance of the Net:

The Internet is the most significant collection of communications technologies ever created. It enables huge numbers of new types of businesses and services, many of them replacing pre-Internet businesses.

And yet that impact has been uneven. Foremski continues, distinguishing between those businesses protected by regulation and those not protected by regulation:

It helps if you are government regulated. The Telcos, for example are able to make use of VOIP and other advances in communications technologies to reduce their costs of doing business yet they are still able to raise the price of their services. Being a government regulated industry helps them keep competition away.

But on the other hand, there's everyone else:

But if you are in the music industry, movie industry, journalism, software services, cloud computing, if you are a software engineer, if you are a web designer, if you design logos -- if you do any kind of digital work you are exposed to a huge amount of competition, you are exposed to the lowest cost provider in your sector -- thanks to the Internet.

Foremski is right in everything he asserts. Absent regulation, if something can be digitalized, the price of that thing can and will plummet, thanks to technology and global competition.

And that reality applies to many healthcare costs, too. How long will it be before many if not most medical diagnoses are reduced to an iPhone app, or its equivalent, connected to a doctor in a low-wage country, or, even more likely, a computer somewhere? And how long before even the search for cures, and the production of medicines, is turned over to computer algorithms and robots? People will still be involved in medical research, of course, but they will be competing with machines. And so healthcare costs, some of them at least, will crash.

Now of course, not everything about healthcare can be digitalized, including bedside manner (although we see what happens with nursebots).

But the one thing that absolutely can't be digitalized--at least no time in the plausible future--is the human body itself. There's no Moore's Law of continuous improvement for us, sadly enough. So even as computers, and data, get better and better, our own physical bodies will inevitably age and decay, just like they always always. Medicine and vitamins and everything else can help, but they can only help so much.

Which is to say, there will always be a strong human demand for medical services. And if the price of everything digital goes down, for the reasons Foremski says, then the relative "value" of humans will rise, paradoxical as that may seem. Human beings, selfish genes and selfish beings that we are, will always be demanding medical treatments.

So by this reckoning, it will be a buyers' market for healthcare--we will be constant, but the price of technology will fall.

And from a Serious Medicine Strategy point of view, that's good news.

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