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The “Pocket Doctor” Reality: Imagining the Future of Healthcare

Jun 19, 2012

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Lots of people talk about the future, but what does it truly look like for the average person? One person with a completely clear vision is Peter Diamandis, doctor, entrepreneur, and founder of the X PRIZE Foundation. One area in particular that Diamandis believes is ripe for reinvention is healthcare.

Working with the Qualcomm Foundation, Diamandis wants to challenge people to create a real-life Star Trek Tricorder mobile sensor with which he hopes to launch an entirely new approach to healthcare-- ultimately fixing what he calls a “broken” system. But will it work? Will we one day trade in our family doctors for mobile phones? We sat down with Diamandis to get his perspective on healthcare of the future.

QUALCOMM SPARK: One of the ways you’re hoping to completely disrupt and the healthcare industry is by launching the Qualcomm Tricorder X PRIZE. Why focus on the healthcare industry in particular?

DIAMANDIS: Healthcare is ripe for massive disruption. The way we practice it today is very inefficient and it’s not as sufficiently distributed or democratized as it could be.

QUALCOMM SPARK: Can you describe this “democratization” of healthcare idea?

DIAMANDIS: We’re entering a day and age where the average individual should be able to access the best healthcare on the planet independent of their wealth and geography. The combination of the Tricorder: AI, cloud computing, digital imaging, lab on a chip, etc. can effectively [do this] for a fraction of the cost of what it’s rapidly approaching.

For example, a Maasai warrior in the middle of Kenya has better mobile communications than President Reagan did 25 years ago, and if they’re on a smartphone, better access to information than President Clinton did 15 years ago. The trend towards human empowerment that started in communications and information is going to move into healthcare and education, which are both areas I’m focused on for the X PRIZE.

QUALCOMM SPARK: Will this access to information through mobile help make “self-help” or “individualized medicine” the future of healthcare?

DIAMANDIS: The future of healthcare is allowing the consumer to become the CEO of their own health-- where there are no more excuses like “My doctor didn’t tell me this or I didn’t know that.” Ultimately, it’s about a future in which what’s going on in your body is constantly being monitored and analyzed, and the results are provided to you so you can make intelligent decisions, or [if you prefer, so you can] attempt more death defying activities.

QUALCOMM SPARK: Are people smart enough to be the “CEO of their own health?”

DIAMANDIS: No. Not yet. But that’s where technology comes in. We’ve evolved from a society where people knew how to do everything they needed to do in their life. They knew how to kill animals, plant foods, fetch water, etc. Now, we utilize a layer of technology that delivers our desires to us… like learning how to fly a plane or take digital images, etc. That’s part of the modern world.

QUALCOMM SPARK: So what’s the role of doctors in the future?

DIAMANDIS: Having spent four years and hundreds of thousands of dollars getting my medial degree – it’s a question that I think about a lot.

First of all, one of the important things to realize is that we can’t educate enough doctors to meet the U.S. needs, let alone the global need. So thinking that we’re taking jobs away from doctors is a fallacy.

Secondly, even the most brilliant human doctor cannot deal with the information flow that is being generated in our digital healthcare world. I think we are going to need artificial intelligence and Tricorders to assist physicians in the final result.

So the role of the doctor in the interim is to be used where he or she is more effective than technology. In the short term that’s going to be helping to understand people’s challenges and issues in human-to-human interactions--intuition. There’s a [limited] period of time where humans have better intuitive sense [than technology]. But ultimately, I think that intuition will be outdone by more efficient data crunching.

QUALCOMM SPARK: Could a device like the Tricorder or other forms of AI truly be smarter and more intuitive than a doctor?

DIAMANDIS: Intuition is no different than expertize in any subject. There’s the old saying to become an expert in anything – juggling, magician, unicycling, it’s all about practice, practice, practice to perfect the neuronal network structure. Intuition is being expert and being able to assess data more effectively or more proportionally than someone else does.

QUALCOMM SPARK: In one of your TedMed talks you mentioned a natural language app – why does medicine need language as opposed to just code and numbers?

DIAMANDIS: One of the most extraordinary things about the Watson success was its ability to understand the nuance of human language on Jeopardy-- how a person expresses himself varies so dramatically from country to country, region to region, language to language. One of the things that makes a physician a physician is the ability to understand the nuance of what people are saying and dive deeper. It’s one thing to do a lab analysis, it’s another thing to be able to add that layer on – that’s going to come from AI.

QUALCOMM SPARK: For healthcare in particular, why does it seem like the people who have the ideas that will really disrupt the industry are people from outside of it. Why is this?

DIAMANDIS: Because people are necessarily to some degree risk adverse, some degree lazy, even those with best intentions will take as much money, budget, and time to accomplish it because they don’t want to fail. And people who are experts in a field are incentivized by human nature not to massively disrupt that field. You’re going to have a tendency to not aggressively support those things that can relegate you to the history pages.

QUALCOMM SPARK: There are around 192 teams in the competition. What happens to the teams that don’t win the $10 million?

DIAMANDIS: In the case of the Qualcomm Tricorder X PRIZE, we’ll have up to three teams that win and we’ll have a multitude of teams that don’t win but will continue on. Our goal is to give birth to an industry. That means hopefully dozens of teams are looking at different technologies – we’ll see teams sharing collaboration. Those people who enter the game to compete quickly look at the problem and say “we can’t do this the way we’ve always done it, we have to come up with something totally new.” It forces them to innovate. 




This article is commissioned by Qualcomm Incorporated. The views expressed are the author's own

(STAR TREK, TRICORDER and related marks and logos are trademarks of CBS Studios Inc. Used under license.)

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Peter Diamandis

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