Thoughts from the Dean

What I Learned in Silicon Valley

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February 17, 2015
What I Learned in Silicon Valley

Tech companies now see health care as significant, fertile market

Being the dean of Harvard Medical School imposes a need to anticipate the ways that science and medical practice will evolve over the coming decades. The reasons should be obvious. We need a medical curriculum that reflects the values and skills physicians will need, the changing ways they will access and employ information, and the health care system within which they will likely operate. On a recent sojourn to Silicon Valley, I had a chance to meet with leaders at Apple and Google, as well as with several aspiring health startups. These meetings clarified and focused my thinking on the ways that health care may be different in 10 to 20 years.

Of course, some aspects of medicine will not change. The need for empathetic and dedicated health professionals to engage with patients, advise and deliver informed and compassionate care–both general and specialized–will remain. In the future, more physicians will work in inter-professional teams, and they will be more aware of population health issues while they focus attention on individual patients. These are important changes, but I am sensing more radical transformations to come.

I have been aware of the increasing power of big data and the associated analytics to reveal unique insights into health and medicine, as well as the internet’s ability to promote new opportunities to both disseminate health information and even care for populations here and around the world. While we have been positioning Harvard Medical School to lead in these areas, my recent trip focused and clarified my understanding in ways that I had not anticipated.

How? I saw directly that some of the largest and most innovative technology companies in the world now see health care as a significant and incredibly fertile market for their efforts, and they are making major investments in ideas and projects that today many might view as science fiction. There is palpable excitement at the interface of biology, psychology, engineering, sensor technology, computation and therapeutics; and this cross-cutting effort is engaging some of the smartest people on the planet, many of whom never before thought about health apart from their own. The opportunities are immense and consequential.

What are some possible outcomes? Two of many come to mind. If we add to existing and soon-to-be-available health and environmental data the results from a new generation of biological sensors, and if we integrate these data using new computational approaches, we will produce insights into individual and population health and disease that were unimaginable. And just as we have moved from health information being primarily a two-way conversation between patient and doctor, to today having widely available online health information of uncertain accuracy and relevance, we are now poised for the availability of well curated health information available everywhere, with details appropriate to the needs of the searcher. Paired with advances in educational technology and learning sciences, the ability to disseminate vital information will increase exponentially.

To the extent these intuitions become reality, the transformation in health care will be far greater than I can even anticipate.  There will be benefits for both cost and quality of care, and an enhanced capacity to respond to patients individual needs and desires. However, potential resistance to these changes from the profession and from regulators might remain issues we must deal with.

Healthcare and bioscience have surely advanced over the past century, but I suspect we may be poised for further acceleration as the best minds of the tech world enter the fray, hopefully, in partnership with medical innovators, educators and practitioners of the future. I will do my part to see that this comes to pass.

Reprinted from the Wall Street Journal