A sticking plaster won’t do

The stock response to many of life’s trials and tribulations is ‘at least you’ve got your health’. But what if you haven’t? And if you haven’t, how will you know, and what can be done about it?

It is increasingly clear that the above questions will occupy the attention of engineers and technologists to an unprecedented degree over the next few decades, and there is a case to be made that healthcare, not climate change, will be seen as the number one challenge of the 21st century.

That sounds wrong. After all, if the planet is under threat surely nothing could be more important than finding technical solutions to the looming catastrophe?

Fair enough, but what if a new priority emerges for every family in every street in every town of the ‘developed world’ over the next 20 years?

There is increasingly compelling evidence that we are heading for some serious crunch times in the healthcare systems of major industrialised nations such as the UK, the rest of the EU and the US, and some equally big decisions for the emerging economies of Asia.

A summit for the international media organised by GE Healthcare this week set the scene for the near future via a series of experts from the medical community, whose testimony was as alarming as it was impressive.

Crunch number one we already know about, and it has featured in The Engineer before — unprecedented numbers of elderly citizens, with all the unique demands they will place on healthcare systems and the economies that fund them.

What about their children? Here comes crunch number two, according to disturbing and compelling predictions of a global obesity pandemic outlined by speakers at the event.

In fact, prediction is the wrong word. Clear evidence is available that the problem is already with us, and the predictions merely relate to its future extent and the scale of the public health emergency it will trigger.

Most depressing of all were the figures relating to obesity in children — far, far more damaging than that acquired in adulthood — and the bitter harvest they can expect to reap in terms of disabling and debilitating illnesses and, above all, an epidemic of diabetes.

So faced with record numbers of pensioners and an obsesity-wracked younger generation that is old before its time (there are already children with the cardio-vascular systems of middle-aged men) how will we meet the challenge?

The first thing to say is that in this situation — rightly or wrongly — nothing will have a greater call on the energies of politicians from their increasingly distressed populations.

And we will have to rethink the way we deliver healthcare, which is where technology and those who develop it enter the equation.

Early diagnosis, smarter treatment, prevention, education and personal responsibility will all play a part in digging the industrialised world out of the huge hole it is eating its way into. The president of Philips Electronics makes a similar point in this week’s Viewpoint.

Engineers and technologists can help directly with the first three, help somewhat with the fourth and can, by default, encourage the last.

Research by GE among Europe’s senior medical officials suggests many EU finance ministries are still focused on the three to five-year quick fixes that characterise the sticking- plaster approach to healthcare.

A sticking plaster won’t do, and sooner or later those politicians will need to grasp the scale of what is facing us. Let’s hope it is sooner.

Andrew Lee, editor