For health’s sake

With healthcare expenditure escalating worldwide and developed countries’ populations all ageing, medical technology must act now to meet the needs of tomorrow, says Louis Burns.

We are constantly flooded with stories about the rising costs of healthcare and the havoc it brings to families around the world. Every day we hear about people’s frustrations with the professionals who are trying to deliver that healthcare, but have the pressure of spending less and less time with their patients. We read about promising drugs but watch loved ones die while they work their way through the regulatory approval process. We blame doctors, hospitals, pharmacies, insurance companies and of course the government.

I want to tell the story from a different perspective, and in this story there’s really no blame. In every part of the healthcare system there are dedicated, passionate, talented professionals trying to do a good job. And every day they have a system that fails them in little ways. Their challenges are truly overwhelming, the pressure is unbelievable, and any mistake can be catastrophic.

If you think about it, most people in healthcare work with tools from the early 1990s. Can you imagine running your business with tools from the 1990s? You wouldn’t stand for it. These healthcare workers want our help, as the technology industry, to bring our innovation and our passion for solving difficult problems.

Our industry will grow when technology intersects human needs. Healthcare is a great example of human needs that can be served by increased use of technology, and the system requires all our talents to start solving these problems and move them forward about a decade from where they are today.

The data is staggering. In the US alone, 15 per cent of GDP is spent on healthcare. If you look at other developed countries, it’s about nine per cent of GDP. According to US federal reserve chairman Alan Greenspan’s forecast, we could be spending 25 per cent of GDP on healthcare if we don’t change how things are being done today. No economy, especially the US economy, can afford to spend one in four dollars on healthcare.

Worldwide, healthcare accounts for $6trillion of spending, and it’s going to get a lot worse. If you look at the average age of people on the planet, you’ll see a phenomenon that we call the bruising of the worldwide economy.

As people age they consume more and more of the healthcare system. As in other industries, the 80/20 rule is a good model here: in the last 20 per cent of a person’s life they consume about 80 per cent of their medical needs and costs.

If we started today, and if we could afford it — which are both huge ifs — building hospitals and assisted living centres and nursing homes, and if we started educating more nurses and doctors, we still cannot close the gap to what’s coming at us from an ageing population. And we surely cannot afford it. Our current path leads to failure, yet failure is not an option. The system has to change.

Intel started turning its attention to these challenges about two years ago. It’s a tremendous opportunity for our industry to apply technology to a very important area.

The first steps are about increasing the efficiency of the use of technology and, most importantly, standards. As we look through this, healthcare really isn’t just an industry, it’s a very, very complex system made up of hospitals, doctors, nurses, insurance companies and so on. And they all try to work together in some fashion. The value from the system is not really created by one piece. The real value comes from the interaction between all the pieces. If you optimise only one component of the system, you simply move the bottleneck somewhere else in the system and someone else has to deal with it.

Complex systems only change when all the pieces change in a systematic way. Technology is a critical part of enabling that change. The key to improving efficiency is what we already know so well. We understand and we live by standards as an industry — one of the few industries in the world that can compete like maniacs, but step back from that playing field every day and agree on standards to improve the overall system. We already know how to do this. Standard technology, standard building blocks and standard data definitions are vital in improving this system.

The undertaking will be difficult, because many have ventured in, and then quickly out, of the healthcare industry. They want to know that we’re truly going to listen to them, that we’re going to understand what their issues are and then take our expertise at developing and deploying standards and put it to work in this critical area.

Louis Burns is general manager, digital health group, for Intel. This is an edited extract of a speech to the Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco.