By Ellen Lee
That’s just one of the dizzying number of ways technology could transform the health care industry. From leveraging big data to tapping into social networking, the same industry that introduced Facebook and Angry Birds is now turning its attention to how technology can be applied to keep people healthy.
Seeing the potential, venture capitalists have channeled $955 million into health care IT, tripling from the $343 million invested three years ago, according to the MoneyTree Report from PricewaterhouseCoopers and the National Venture Capital Association, based on data from Thomson Reuters.
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The federal government is also planning to spend up to $29 billion in incentives to encourage hospitals and doctors’ offices to digitize health care records.
“All of these VCs are now starting to put money into the space. And as we start getting some big wins, we’re going to see this accelerate,” said Aza Raskin, cofounder of Massive Health — a startup developing a mobile app to encourage healthier eating and other health-related tools — in an interview with Fast Company. “The smartest minds of our generation shouldn’t be working on getting us more addicted to Facebook or Twitter; they should be working on helping us get — and stay — healthy.”
Just how are tech nerds getting involved in health care? Here are five ways:
1. Crunching data to offer a better diagnosis and treatment: Just call the computer “Dr. Watson.” Researchers at IBM have been developing the supercomputer known as Watson (which, in February 2011, beat out ”Jeopardy” champs Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter to win $1 million, which was donated to charity) to help physicians make better diagnoses and recommend treatments. Doctors could potentially rely on Watson to keep track of patient history, stay up-to-date on medical research and analyze treatment options. Doctors at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York are expected to begin testing Dr. Watson later this year.
2. Helping doctors communicate with patients: Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC) has developed Omnifluent Health, a translation program for doctors and others in the medical field. The suite of products includes a mobile app that lets doctors speak into the app — asking, for example, if a patient is allergic to penicillin — and translate the message instantly into another language. Given that there are 47 million U.S. residents who don’t speak English fluently, the program could be a boon for doctors who would otherwise need to rely on translators and medical assistants to communicate with their patients.
3. Linking doctors with other doctors: Could social networking help doctors work better together to take care of their patients? That’s the premise behind Doximity, a social network exclusive to physicians. Through Doximity, doctors throughout the United States can collaborate online on difficult cases. It’s received $27 million in funding and counts among its board members Konstantin Guericke, a cofounder of LinkedIn.
4. Connecting doctors and patients: New York City startup Sherpaa offers patients medical consultations online and over the phone, potentially saving a trip to the ER. The medical advice doesn’t come from just anyone, but from some of the city’s top medical specialists. Employers such as Tumblr have signed onto the service.
5. Helping patients stay healthy: A growing number of mobile apps and gadgets aim to help people stay active, sleep well and eat healthy. Among them are Fitbit, a pedometer that tracks daily sleep and activity and uses social networking and gaming to motivate its users. Lark is a silent alarm clock and sleep monitor that tracks and analyzes a person’s quality of sleep over time, offering suggestions to help the person get better rest (it has since expanded to track daily activity, too). And there are dozens upon dozens of calorie-counting, food-monitoring and menu-tracking apps to aid the diet-conscious.
It’s clear that technology is giving the health care industry a much-needed upgrade, from medical translation tools to mobile apps that help patients live healthier lives. Though much is still in the early and experimental stages, the advances in technology could help save money in health care costs and improve patient treatment.
Patients who can connect with their doctors more easily, for instance, won’t need to make expensive and perhaps unnecessary trips to the ER or specialists. Doctors will be able to collaborate with other physicians and experts in new ways and use computers to analyze patient and medical data, allowing them to provide better and more efficient treatment for their patients. As technology continues to expand the horizons of medicine and medical interaction, it’s becoming clear that we’re entering a new era of health care — or as some people are beginning to call it, Health 2.0.