Eric Topol, MD, director of the Scripps Translational Science Institute in La Jolla, Calif., was at the Stanford Cardiovascular Institute talking yesterday about the transformative power of digital technology and social networks in medicine. He noted that economist Joseph Schumpeter described more than 50 years ago how old ways of doing things are destroyed as new technologies take over. “Medicine is about to go through the biggest shake-up in history,” Topol predicted. “We are about to get Schumpetered.”
Displaying a graph of people’s increasing interaction with digital devices, he talked about the rise of the iPod, the Blackberry phone, the iPhone and now social networking, and the accelerating changes they have made in how we live our lives. Add those devices to the increasing amount of digital information available about our biological and physiological states, and “we are about to hit the inflection point” in how all medicine is done.
Topol foresees a world in which people will know an enormous amount about their own genes, biochemistry and physiological state, and have the ability to monitor changes in real time and transmit that information to physicians far away. There are already wireless devices that record and transmit information about blood pressure, heart rate, physical activity and sleep state. Doctors can carry an echocardiogram device in their pockets. Very soon, Topol said, we’ll have inexpensive implanted sensors that will be able to spot cancer cells floating in the bloodstream or spot a developing heart attack, giving us enough warning to do something about it.
The new technology will enable many patients to be at home instead of in the hospital because they can be monitored from afar. “Why do we need hospitals except for intensive care visits?” Topol asked. “Why do we need clinics when we can do it wirelessly?”
Putting these information technologies to work will also finally allow medicine to move from a populations-based approach to individualized medicine. As an example, Topol cited the case of Nicholas Volker, who at three years old had undergone more than 100 operations because a mystery illness was eating away at his digestive tract. As a last resort, doctors sequenced his whole genome and found one gene mutation that was causing the problem. A stem cell transplantation from cord blood cured him.
I, for one, am looking forward to these changes. I think they’ll result in a system in which we’re more connected to our health needs and more connected to people around us. And I think we’ll have generally better health care – as long as we don’t lose the personal connection to physicians.