FutureWire - futurism and emerging technology

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Taking the Long View in Healthcare Technology

One reason behind the explosive growth in the cost of healthcare in America is our reliance on -- and expectation of -- the latest technological solutions to solve every conceivable health problem. According to a recent article in Newsweek:

An international survey conducted by the European Union and the U.S. National Science Foundation found that two thirds of Americans were "very interested in news about medical discoveries" compared with 44 percent of Europeans. Among seniors, the difference was even more striking: 79 percent of Americans were "very interested," versus only 42 percent of Europeans. A third of Americans thought that modern medicine could "cure almost any illness for people who have access to the most advanced technology and treatment." Germans, by contrast, had an iron grip on reality: only 11 percent had such faith in medicine...

Americans seek technological fixes for problems that might once have been the province of a priest, bartender or grandmother. They think it's only a matter of time before medicine cures obesity, menopause, baldness, rowdiness, shyness, sexual dysfunction, cancer, aging and even death.

Such confidence in technology drives much futurist theory, especially in the realms of transhumanism and extreme longevity. But taken in the short-term, reliance on technology at the expense of careful analysis and even common sense can have detrimental results. Witness the Vioxx debacle, fad diets and extremely expensive surgical procedures whose results may not justify their cost.

However, Americans think this way only because our healthcare system has been spectacularly successful at using technology to better our health, from vaccines to antibiotics to transplants to minimally invasive surgery. The problems arise when not enough attention is paid to the long view, or when money and profit rather than science or health become the driving forces. To that end, healthcare professionals would be well served to use foresight principles in examining how technology choices made today could affect patients decades down the road, and the unintended consequences of those decisions.