Two pieces of news provide a flicker of hope amid the doom and gloom.
Imagine getting a telephone call from your favorite pharmacy asking you to pick up a prescription for an antibiotic to cure the trace of pneumonia that was detected in your nightly full health test relayed from your Health-O-Watch integral bed monitor system.
With elements of science and technology now being developed, this can indeed be a possible future for us all. Nanosensors capable of identifying single molecules of a particular nature are close to reality.
We have long known the specific vectors that cause many of mankind's maladies. Techniques to identify such elements are used today in laboratory diagnosis.
Coupling these techniques with a system integrated into your bed requires development of sensors and the means to send the information from your body to the medical office. So what, pray tell, is missing? The key elements to complete this picture are the probes and the sensors.
If we as a nation were to focus a portion of our incredible engineering talent in this direction, the first products should arrive on the market in just a few years. By 2020, the entire health industry would be substantially different from that which we see today. Will it happen?
Is it only a simple matter of vested interests battling application of science, interests who don't want change? Practically all fields of profit rely upon the delivery of a valuable good or service to a demand. When the opportunity for a new method arrives on the horizon, some people - often the potential users of the technology and advancement - are excited with the hope of a better future. At the same time, others, eking out their existence through commerce involved in the existing technology, may view such new opportunities as threats to their livelihood.
If this "bed sensor" were delivered to households in America, what would be some of the ramifications? Manufacturers would need to redesign their beds to accommodate the new sensors. Internet companies would need to develop secure channels to commute the sensory information to appropriate (and not inappropriate) receivers, such as medical organizations.
Aha! Suddenly we discover one nagging problem. Even simple sensory information received from your breath while you sleep could be used for a more sinister plan. Many of us remember George Orwell's novel in which Big Brother constantly watches over us to ensure we behave. Naturally, any system that can convey direct physiological information about a single human being could be routed to such a sinister process.
We must consider that there would be a major difference in the cost of medical treatment. If an illness is identified early, and if there is a known cure, the cure would cost less. Large stockpiles of medicine would not need to be stored at every hospital, pharmacy and doctor's office just in case someone arrived with a particular disease.
This means that fewer medications would expire on the shelf and fewer would be dumped in municipal waste systems instead of being metabolized by patients.
It's possible that in the case of something like pneumonia, for example, the malady would be contained to one individual and stopped within a few days of the contraction of the disease. In addition, since the sensory information would identify other victims, an outbreak would be quenched at the onset. Could we eradicate pneumonia? Possibly - that is, if it isn't indigenous to the human body.
Such an approach of stopping maladies at the onset could dramatically turn the tables on a great deal of the medical and health professions and business. Instead of the current practice of learning about all the diseases known to mankind and then through in- office and lab-test evaluations, selecting the cure to apply, medical professionals would be primarily either administering doses or researching new unknown diseases discovered in sensor events worldwide.
Health maintenance would be focused more on diet and discovery, rather than on repair of known disease effects. Clearly, this would not as much affect physical surgery events such as broken bones, organ replacements, cosmetic surgery and the like, but it would represent a large fraction of the existing health infrastructure.
It is my opinion that medical professionals would view this with delight as they would see their patients live longer and healthier lives, yet at the same time the companies that deliver medications and even possibly organizations that provide hospital bed services could consider this a threat. If a hospital were to suddenly have 20 percent occupancy rather than 80 percent, somebody is going to lose a lot of money!
What about drug companies? At first glance it might appear that they would be a "biggest loser" in this bed sensor technology. Not so! Instead of bulk delivery of medications for major maladies, the drug companies would end up likely selling smaller doses in which packaging and rapid delivery are valuable.
Drug companies receive their greatest revenue stream from nongeneric drugs, and this type of system would likely result in more opportunity for growth.
What about hospitals? Over the long term, hospitals would be able to re-scale their sizes and focus more on preventative medications as well as outpatient services which actually enable them to move closer to their primary intent. They could enhance neo-natal care, heart and other organ care systems, and in general have fewer communicable diseases to isolate from other patients.
How does one pay for medical practice in which much of the solution to maladies comes through technology? Who gets charged to install such a sensory network? Is it a private company or a government system? What happens to health insurance? As one can see, so many questions pop up with just one simple technology implementation. It may be challenging to implement this rather simple solution that truly would increase the life expectancy of every human being on Earth.
A brief word about the challenge it might pose to health insurance. Since sensors would offer continuous monitoring of everyone, it's obvious that insurance would end up being "personalized" to one's own health. To some extent this already exists. Insurance companies are in the business of returning profits to their owners and they want a "healthy investment." If they offer compensation packages that end up costing them more than the fees they charge, they will clearly go out of business.
So, if you happen to have some known tendency for a malady, insurers would want to charge you more over your lifetime than they pay for your medical bills. In spite of the fact that a health insurance company may have millions of clients, that company must bring in more money than it costs for the health benefits they pay out. So, if they can remove any individuals who they can predict will have high expenses, they would like to do so. This is simply "good business."
Dr. Hackleman, a longtime trustee of West Virginia's National Youth Science Camp, led Hewlett-Packard research that developed the ink-jet printer. He is retired as an Oregon State University chemical engineering professor.