Digital innovations have now made it possible for consumers to use portable devices to access their medical information, monitor their vital signs, take tests at home and carry out a wide range of tasks. In his book "The Creative Destruction of Medicine," Eric Topol, a cardiologist, geneticist and researcher, describes how medicine is entering an age of democratization as power shifts from hospitals, doctors and other caregivers to patients, potentially leading to dramatic health care improvements.
In the mid-20th century Joseph Schumpeter, the noted Austrian economist, popularized the term "creative destruction" to denote transformation that accompanies radical innovation. In recent years, our world has been "Schumpetered."
By virtue of the intensive infiltration of digital devices into our daily lives, we have radically altered how we communicate with one another and with our entire social network at once. Everywhere we go, we take pictures and videos with our cellphone, the one precious object that never leaves our side. Forget about going to a video store to rent a movie and finding out it is not in stock. Just download it at home and watch it on television, a computer monitor, a tablet or even your phone. The Web lets us sample nearly all books in print without even making a purchase and efficiently download the whole book in a flash. Our lives have been radically transformed through digital innovation. Radically transformed. Creatively destroyed.
But the most precious part of our existence – our health – has thus far been largely unaffected, insulated and almost compartmentalized from this digital revolution. How could this be? Medicine is remarkably conservative to the point of being properly characterized as sclerotic, even ossified. Beyond the reluctance and resistance of physicians to change, the life science industry (companies that develop and commercialize drugs, devices or diagnostic tests) and government regulatory agencies are in a near-paralyzed state, unable to break out of a broken model determining how their products are developed or commercially approved. But that is about to change. Medicine is about to go through its biggest shakeup in history.
For the first time we can digitize humans. We can remotely and continuously monitor each heart beat, moment-to-moment blood pressure readings, the rate and depth of breathing, body temperature, oxygen concentration in the blood, glucose, brain waves, activity, mood – all the things that make us tick. We can image any part of the body and do a three-dimensional reconstruction, eventually leading to the capability of printing an organ. Or, we can use a miniature, handheld, high-resolution imaging device that rapidly captures critical information anywhere, such as the scene of a motor vehicle accident or a person's home in response to a call of distress. We can determine all 6 billion letters ("life codes") of a person's genome sequence.
And all of this information about an individual can be assembled from wireless biosensors, genome sequencing or imaging to be readily available, integrated with all the traditional medical data and constantly updated. We now have the technology to digitize a human being in highest definition, in granular detail, and in ways that most people thought would not be possible.
This reflects an unprecedented super-convergence. It would not be possible were it not for the maturation of the digital world technologies – the ubiquity of smartphones, bandwidth, pervasive connectivity and social networking. Beyond this, the perfect digital storm includes immense, seemingly unlimited, computing power via cloud server farms, remarkable biosensors, genome sequencing, imaging capabilities and formidable health information systems.
Think of the cellphone, which is not only a hub of telecommunications convergence, but also a remarkable number of devices all rolled into one gadget: camera, video recorder, GPS, calculator, watch, alarm clock, music player, voice recorder, photo album and library of books – like a pluripotent stem cell. Armed with apps, it carries out diverse functions from flashlight to magnifying glass. Then connect it to a wireless network, and this tiny device is a web surfer, word processor, video player, translator, dictionary, encyclopedia and gateway to the world's knowledge base. And, by the way, it even texts, emails and provides phone service. But now picture this device loaded for medicine, capable of displaying all of one's vital signs in real time, conducting laboratory analyses, sequencing parts of one's genome, or even acquiring ultrasound images of one's heart, abdomen or unborn baby.