While it’s all doom and gloom when I attend traditional medical device meetings, the group of (often new to healthcare) technologists interested in digital health provide a refreshing contrast. Last week I had the opportunity to interact with a group of impressively pedigreed technology CTO’s who had set themselves the challenge of inventing a new dimension to the Quantified Self (QS) movement: consumer nutritional micro-analysis.
FiRe and Micronutrients
I was at the “FiRe: Future in Review” conference, because one of the companies I am helping had been selected to be showcased as a “FiReStarter“. It’s a quite unusual meeting, with lots of interesting attendees and plenty of time and encouragement for exchanging ideas. There were many thought provoking discussions, but the one I am going to highlight was the “CTO challenge”, in which a group of technology industry CTO’s were given the task of inventing a new field of nutritional microanalysis. You can read a summary here, where you can also view the pedigree of the CTO’s – who came from places like Microsoft and Intuit, leavened with some out-of-the-box types like a science fiction author and a National Medal of Technology Laureate.
The impetus for this CTO challenge came as a result of a personal voyage by Quantified Self-er Larry Smarr, to understand his own health using all the available tools (and then some) available to Quantified Self-ers, including genome analysis, stool analysis and much much more. You can read about Larry’s fascinating adventure here (PDF) and here. As I understand it, Larry reached the point where he has a pretty detailed understanding of what is happening inside him, and has realized that what is needed to go to the next step is a better understanding of what is going in to his “system”.
This makes total sense to us physical scientists. If you think about each of our bodies as a somewhat unique machine, you can surely learn a lot about how the machine works if you can analyze the inputs and the outputs. This CTO challenge is all about analyzing the inputs. For those of you who travel regularly to Japan, you will be aware that high technology toilets, equipped with various sensing modalities, are a popular item there. So maybe the analysis of “outputs” is also being worked on.
Wellness meets healthcare
It was impressive just how much progress the CTO panel made on this challenge during the week. And it is certainly an interesting idea. But I found myself reflecting while listening to the final discussions about how different this was from healthcare discussions in other fora.
For example, there was really no discussion about who would pay for this new technology, or discussion about the need for randomized trials to “prove” these measurements would somehow improve something (life, care, health etc). The whole tone of the discussion was much more like the tone of a discussion of the next “app”. It seemed logical that at least some of the “Quantified Self movement” would want/use these new tools once they existed. And be willing to pay for them the same way they pay today for FitBits, wireless scales, and various Wellness app’s. And these new tools probably/hopefully would fall outside the scope of FDA regulation.
One important point is that using the tools of the Quantified Self is by no means inexpensive. In Larry Smarr’s articles he mentions having to pay himself for portions of his blood tests at a cost that exceeds $5K/yr. I suspect the total costs of his adventures would far exceed that number. And the costs of the tools used by more mainstream QS-ers add up too. For many years I have believed that new innovations in healthcare will only get adopted if paid for by someone other than the patient. Perhaps it is time to rethink that assumption.
It seems to me this is one small example of an entire phenomenon that is unfolding right now. And that is the intersection of the field of “wellness” with the field of “healthcare”. And perhaps this is where we should look for some of the solutions to the healthcare cost crisis. It has often been stated that prevention is less expensive than therapy, but that our current system does not reward prevention. Perhaps the QS movement is an example of a new disruptive solution emerging outside the ecosystem of the current industry. If so, it would fit perfectly into Clayton Christenson‘s description of how disruptive innovations are supposed to emerge. Food for more thought.