By Trevor Hawkins
Today, few people think twice at depositing a check, paying their taxes, or even trading stocks through their mobile phone. Healthcare, on the other hand, has remained trapped in a pre-digital era, where even the most routine medical services are largely performed in-office and critical lab diagnostics can take hours or days — when minutes matter most.
For nearly three decades, I have been a part of efforts to advance innovation within healthcare, from working with a team of brilliant minds to sequence the human genome to investigating the potential of lab-on-a-chip. I have seen a lot of promise and excitement, some incredible discoveries, and I’ve also experienced firsthand how that enthusiasm burns out against the often-immovable nature of an industry known for progressing too slowly to incorporate new ways of doing things.
But right now, something feels extremely different.
When you look back over history, there have been a handful of groundbreaking advances that dramatically changed the course of our human experience — from the industrial revolution, to railroads and interstate highways and global air travel, to the unimaginable insights of the sequenced genome, to ubiquitous connectivity that has utterly transformed every aspect of our daily lives. During these periods, we not only increased our scientific knowledge, but also empowered people to take control of their experiences through revolutionary advancements.
I believe we’re in one of those moments again today. I see it all around us and I’ve never been more excited.
We are at an inflection point, where the convergence of three critical variables is happening — technology, scientific knowledge, and community.
First, technology has become extremely sophisticated, fast, and accessible — more than 85% of the global population has a high-speed computer (aka smart-phone) in their pocket. Technology advancement continues at a breakneck pace and the possibilities have become nearly limitless. Then there is our understanding of the human body and behaviors that affect our health. I would say that our overall scientific knowledge has matured 100-fold in just the last 20 years. And perhaps the most compelling of these three variables is the ability of communities to connect and advocate for themselves on a scale that would have been impossible just a couple of decades ago. Not only have communities become better able to communicate internally, but also between groups, highlighting inequities and kickstarting a necessary and overdue conversation about healthcare access. Accelerated by the pandemic, people around the world have become more aware, more engaged, and increasingly eyes-wide-open about the limits of our existing health systems. People are demanding better, more flexible solutions, and ultimately, more power over their treatment decisions.
While the Covid-19 pandemic continues to alter our daily lives in many negative ways — it has also marshalled in a new energy for healthcare innovation. Together we woke up to the need for better digital solutions driven by data, for treating patients wherever they are and for overall progress toward improved health outcomes.
So, how do we collectively embrace these new possibilities, how do we accelerate our efforts, and how do we make sure that every community is included in this new age of healthcare?
First, we need to focus the conversation on meeting patients where they are: in their home, at work, on the go, or at a traditional doctor’s office. New business models should match new technologies. Providers, insurers, regulators, academics, and tech companies must work together to break down barriers and create new solutions.
Second, we must focus on convenience. The ways in which we changed how healthcare could be accessed during the pandemic need to be extended or modified for permanent use. For example, regulators made it easier for doctors to communicate with patients and to engage in telemedicine over common platforms such as Skype and Zoom. Now, imagine this system combined with the ability to store medical records on a secure device in your bedroom and, to monitor vitals and symptoms from your phone using connected devices. These innovations would provide more personalized care and greater equity.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, a few companies with the right vision and capacity are going to transition very quickly — but it won’t be easy if we approach things the way we’ve always done it. These important changes will require flexible thinking. Just as Zoom wouldn’t have been considered a vital medical tool a few years ago, we must evaluate the potential in innovations across the technological landscape. At HP, we’re drawing on our experience empowering consumers in their homes, businesses and schools, to imagine how this new era could work. Namely, we’re exploring ways to apply our microfluidics technology, which gives us the ability to handle fluids with great precision, allowing users to manipulate drops of fluid that are 100,000 times smaller than a raindrop — and five times smaller than the human cell. These advances will take us one step closer to meeting patients where they are, rather than where current tech requires them to be.
These sorts of cross-industry approaches to medical care are what will advance this movement — it’s what helped us pull together to sequence the genome, to build not just interstates but also the internet. A range of organizations hold the expertise to solve our greatest health challenges and accelerate the healthcare revolution — and it’s about working together to ensure that patients are at the center of our progress.
For both patients and providers, results will include better prevention, better treatment options, and more empowerment than ever before; but we must collectively push for innovation to attain them. Regulators, health systems, and technology companies must work together to create systems that will deliver innovation to every member of society, and we must continue to pressure these groups to collaborate while this topic is in the public eye more than ever.
Only then will we have capitalized on this momentous opportunity and enabled entirely unseen levels of patient empowerment — empowerment that technology has brought to so many other significant areas of our lives.
Trevor Hawkins is the Global Head of HP 200A, HP’s innovation program focused on healthcare applications. For more than 25 years, he has served in a variety of global healthcare leadership roles across research, clinical and corporate organizations, including the Human Genome Project, numerous health-tech ventures, and Entrepreneur-in-Residence at GE.