Health Care for the Masses

Only 3 billion of the world’s 7 billion people have access to health care right now. A leading healthcare consultant believes health care technology can fix that.

by Dan Ferber
May 22, 2017

It didn’t add up for Dr. Stephen Oesterle.

He was visiting the world’s largest hospital — West China Hospital in Chengdu, China, which is the capital of Sichuan province and the self-described “gateway to western China.” Patients from all over western China traveled hundreds of miles by train and car to get there, and they filled the hospital’s 4,300 in-patient beds often enough that the hospital had plans to build 3,000 more beds to handle the growing influx of patients.

“This can’t be the solution for western China,” Oesterle recalled thinking. “This can’t be the way.”

Only 3 billion of the world’s 7 billion people have access to health care right now, said Oesterle, a health care consultant. “We have to have better medical technology and figure out a way to distribute health care.”

Nor is the current system the solution for wealthy countries like the United States. The world spends $7 trillion a year on health care, and the U.S. spends $3.5 trillion each year.

“There’s no reason we should spend $3.5 trillion on health care – it’s ludicrous,” Oesterle said.

The answer was better health care technology, and the good news was that it was almost inevitable, Oesterle said last month in a keynote speech at the Design of Medical Devices Conference in Minneapolis, MN.

That’s because ten enabling technologies critical to distributed health care are getting better and cheaper. When it comes down to it, faster and cheaper computing power is driving this revolution, Oesterle said.

“It’s all about the data,” said Oesterle.

Venture capitalists with plenty of capital have figured this out, and they’re making big investments in this space, Oesterle said. For example, VCs and other investors have given a lot of money to Google’s Life Sciences research unit, whose name was recently changed to Verily.

Verily is developing include contact lenses for diabetics that monitor blood glucose, wrist computers that read diagnostic nanoparticles injected in the blood stream, and more. In fact, last year GlaxoSmithKline and Verily teamed up and agreed to spend up to $716 million over seven years to develop implants that send electrical pulses electricity to spur the body to heal itself.

Meanwhile, the biopharmaceutical giant AbbVie, a recent spinoff of Abbott, teamed up with Calico, which is owned by Google parent company Alphabet, to invest $750 million in new therapies for neurodegeneration, cancer, and other age-related diseases.

Apple, too, has carved out a stunning $17.5 billion health care research budget, including a well-publicized effort to develop a glucose-monitoring contact lens for diabetics.

Oesterle was speaking recently with a top Apple executive. “Health care is the future of Apple,” he said the executive told him.

According to Oesterle, the ten enabling technologies that will drive distributed health care are:

  • Ever-faster and cheaper computation, including better data analytics;
  • Machine learning;
  • Communication technologies;
  • Electroceuticals, also known as neuromodulation;
  • Better batteries;
  • Faster, cheaper gene sequencing, which will allow individual genome sequencing and drive personalized medicine;
  • 3-D printing, which will allow faster, cheaper prototyping, and will be available in every operating room;
  • Improved materials, including new polymers, nanomaterials, and graphene;
  • Direct-to-consumer medical technologies such as Fitbits and breast pumps that don’t need FDA approval.

Sensors are the key to tracking individuals’ health outside the doctor’s office, Oesterle said. By 2025, he predicted, sensors will be in wearables and implants everywhere, and they’ll be able to track a wide range of health-related variables, including motion, heart rate, sleep cycles, as Fitbits do today, but also blood glucose levels, blood pH, fluid status, UV exposure, blood pressure, heart pressure, heart rhythms, and more.

What’s more, sensors, like computer chips before them, are growing smaller and cheaper, Oesterle said. For example, Caltech physicist and electrical engineer Axel Scherer, who has developed ways to make a sensor small enough to be injected into an artery.

Together, sensors, along with better communication technologies (handheld devices, broadband wireless networks, low-energy Bluetooth, cloud computing, better data storage and analysis, and supercomputing and the semantic web), will drive the coming revolution in health care, Oesterle said: “You should be able to take care of people remotely without seeing the doctor or taking the train to Chengdu,” he concluded.