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TransTech Digest: Apple’s Smartwatch May put Biotech on Silicon Valley Time

 -- Published: Thursday, 11 September 2014 | Print  | Disqus 

By Patrick Cox 

Tech sites are buzzing right now about the new Apple smartwatch and iPhone. Having been a part of or close to the tech industry for a long time, the excitement that builds over new products doesn’t normally move me much. This time, though, it’s a little different because of reports that the phone and watch will be integrated to support healthcare apps.

The technological convergence was never just about bringing entertainment to mobile devices. Finally, we’re seeing the convergence expand into areas that directly impact health. The timing is perfect.

The history of medicine is as old as the history of humankind. Even prior to the rise of Egyptian and Indian civilizations, humans were treating medical ailments with varying success. If you haven’t looked at the research regarding Ötzi the Iceman, I recommend it. In 1991, the mummified and frozen body of a man who died approximately 5,300 years ago was found in the mountainous border between Austria and Italy.

The objects on his body have inspired extensive research and surprise, but several things stand out to me. One is that his weapons and clothing, especially his shoes, required skills and materials that couldn’t have been available to every individual at the time. They were, therefore, constructed by skilled specialists and traded across considerable distances.

Clearly, commerce and trade were not only common among prehistoric humans, the practice of voluntary trade clearly gave practitioners enormous advantages in the struggle to survive and raise their families. Trading is not something outside of human nature, as antibusiness forces want us to believe. It is ingrained in our DNA.

The most interesting item found on Ötzi, in my opinion, was a fungus, the Piptoporus betulinus mushroom that grows on birch trees. Like the penicillin fungus, it has antibiotic and anti-inflammatory properties and was probably traded and used by ancient Europeans to treat stomach ulcers and parasites, which Ötzi suffered from. In the Americas, native populations were also developing effective medicines such as anti-inflammatory tobacco poultices for insect bites and other injuries.

Obviously, the body of medical knowledge accumulated by our species since then has grown in volume and sophistication. In truth, it’s actually overwhelming. This collective information is an enormous resource for doctors and healthcare professionals of all types. Dozens of online libraries, catalogs, and databases are available for help in diagnosis and treatment design.

This rich volume of knowledge, however, has a downside. No individual can possibly know everything about modern medicine. While the specific, pertinent pieces of information needed for a given diagnosis or treatment are almost guaranteed to be out there somewhere, sifting through it all can be menacing. Even if time were not a factor when a patient is suffering, finding the one detail that makes the difference can be difficult. In the hospital scenario, this is a particular problem because time so often is precious.

Healthcare professionals are integral members of our society, and while not all are fantastic, a large majority do tremendous work and are incredibly knowledgeable. Even the most well-trained, experienced doctor still has the flaw of being human, however. Expecting physicians to hold the entirety of human medical knowledge in their working memory and to be able to recall the most obscure details at a moment’s notice is to expect the impossible. This only represents one of the many challenges a physician may face, but this one perfectly matches the skillset of computers.

Mobile AIs with diagnostic capacities and access to all databases will help doctors narrow down the choices significantly by giving them access to information wherever they are. Another technology that will eventually have a huge impact on the healthcare field is virtual reality. Immersive visual technologies like Oculus Rift plus a haptic feedback technology that delivers feelings to the user will allow surgeons to practice rare, dangerous, and difficult surgeries to maximize the safety of the procedure.

Not only would technologies like Google Glass allow doctors to find information on the fly, it would enable expedited communication between doctors, not only in the same hospital but hundreds of miles away as well. Stories like that of South Dakotan Tom Soukup illustrate the transformation of the healthcare system toward one where all medical knowledge is made available to doctors and of use to the consumer.

In Mr. Soukup’s case, he was badly injured by a cow on a ranch outside of the small town of Wagner, South Dakota. The closest hospital’s doctor, however, didn’t have expertise in the kind of surgery that Soukup needed. If it had been a different era, Soukup’s story might have been found in an obituary, but that is not the case.

The doctor in Wagner’s hospital got on a video conference with experts in a Sioux Falls hospital, who were able to direct Soukup’s doctor, most likely saving his life. On the international scale, the ability to get the opinion and guidance of any expert in the world at a moment’s notice has the potential to break down borders between the healthcare communities of all different countries. In time, patients will have access to the very best medical wisdom no matter where they’re located.

The iPhone-smartwatch combination may not seem to be a great step toward the realization of this goal, but time runs at a faster pace in the world of computer technologies than it does elsewhere. With Apple’s entrance into mobile health, we’re going to see a new breed of entrepreneur pushing the envelope of biotech progress.

For too long, medicine has been held back by the glacial pace of last century’s regulatory model. IT executives have a very different attitude, and they’re getting better at influencing policy makers. Biotech progress is already surpassing Moore’s law in many areas, but the arrival of Apple into this area is going to accelerate the industry, compressing time further. This may be the most significant aspect of the company’s newly launched smartwatch.


Patrick Cox

To learn more about the new research driving Patrick's investigations at his Transformational Technology Alert letter for Mauldin Economics, click here.

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