As I wrote a couple of days ago, as part of our involvement in Silicon Valley Comes to the UK, Sarah and I attended the MedTech panel event last Friday. The subject was, The Future Lives of Patients – specifically at how those lives might look in a decade. I’ve already written about my thoughts on the importance of data in this whole area , but this is a report in a bit more detail on the presentations and debate.

At first glance it might look slightly tangential to what we normally talk about on this blog, but as a team passionate about technology and entrepreneurship and data, we can hardly ignore the health sector. And of course, there’s our own mild obsession with the quantified-self movement. But more of that another time.

Andy Richards, “A self-confessed biotech addict… a serial founder and investor in Cambridge life-science companies and an effusive enthusiast for UK Bioscience” chaired the session for us. In order to frame the debate and engage the audience, Richards asked the assembled room a series of questions about the salient topics, among them the use of mobile devices, constant self-monitoring and concerns about privacy.

The panel then each gave a 10 minute or so overview of where they thought healthcare was headed over the next few years.

George Freeman, Conservative MP for Mid-Norfolk, entrepreneur and science advisor to the government pointed out that “turning biology into medicine takes a long time” the process requiring as it does, a necessarily large amount of regulation. He went on to outline the four big themes he saw changing the landscape:

  • The collapse of the big pharma one-size-fits-all approach to healthcare.
  • The rise of the empowered patient.
  • The convergence of scientific disciplines.
  • The pressure on government budgets as the population ages.

David Levinson from CardioDX discussed the fact that huge advances had been made in treatment (operative and pharmaceutical), but that improvements in diagnosis had lagged behind. The result being that often expensive treatments and procedures were used unnecessarily (a theme which frankly ran throughout the session). He also talked about how his own company was pioneering diagnostic techniques using patient genomes.

Stanley Yang of Neurosky gave an engaging personal history of his passage from the world of tech geekery to healthcare, a story which bizarrely included George Lucas as one of the key players. The nub of it was that his team have developed techniques for using brain scanning technologies to allow profoundly disabled patients to communicate. If I’m honest I’m not entirely sure that Yang answered the evening’s brief, although it was clear that he believes neuro-scanning tech will play a big part in the emerging healthcare environment.

Alice Rathgen from DNA Guide returned us to the genome, discussing ways to visualise patients’ genetic information and it’s implications for their health and lifestyle. I was taken with her notion that the web itself could be transformed into a giant medical network that would require us all to own our “biological” domains.

Ramesh Paskar from MIT Media Lab presented a prototype for a simple eyesight testing peripheral which attaches to smart phones. He pointed to the staggering statistic that there are over 1 billion people worldwide who need glasses but don’t have them, simply because they’ve never had their eyes tested. His device can be deployed cheaply and easily in emerging economies to rectify this.

The final presentation was from Harpal Kumar, CEO of Cancer Research UK and one of the founders of the Francis Crick Institute, which has been set up to address what he sees as one the most emergent trends in science: cross-disciplinary working. He talked about what are for him the four key areas in cancer treatment over the next decade:

  • Targeted prevention
  • Early detection
  • Identification of dangerous cancers (many aren’t but are still treated – unnecessarily and expensively)
  • Truly individualised medicine

There then followed a pretty lively Q&A with the audience.

From my point of view the themes which emerged over the evening were:

  • Continual diagnosis
  • Patient self-monitoring
  • Cross-disciplinary working
  • The constant tension between big medicine and smaller scale entrepreneurial innovation – a creative tension at its best
  • The overwhelming importance of data, and huge business potential in collecting and mining that data

Now, the evening was undoubtedly an enjoyable and informative one, but I’d feel remiss not to mention a couple of gripes – and welcome anyone who wants to argue me down! Despite the excellent scene-setting from Andy Richards, the panel discussion and Q&A didn’t really tackle the 10 year horizon brief. Several of the presentations felt more like company pitches – I suppose that’s what entrepreneurs do and they had travelled all the way from Silicon Valley to boot.

I also think a few key areas were either overlooked or passed over pretty quickly, including:

  • The quantified-self movement – it might all be bleeding edge lifestyle experimentalists at the moment, but these outliers will become the norm in the developed world, with huge implications for healthcare, and huge opportunities for business (I give you Withings and, the company founded by Mrs Sergey Brin).
  • The coming together of nano tech and medicine – scary stuff (read Greg Bear’s hallucinatory Blood Music for more on that) – but incredibly exciting
  • The need to rethink radically the balance between prevention and treatment…
  • … and a corollary to this: an emergent “class system of health” as an educated, wealthy sector of the public become a health elite through informed lifestyle choices and access to information
  • Data ethics: actually this was touched on but I sensed no-one wanted to go near it. But seriously, are we happy to be as cavalier with our medical data as our attitude to Facebook would seem to suggest? (See Mayer-Schönberger’s Delete for thoughts on the dire consequences of our data being simply too public, too accessible.)
  • And finally, the full range of implications of demographic change: urbanisation, a rapidly aging population, population explosions in sub-Saharan Africa and so on. Again, in fairness we did touch on the ageing population issue, but really only in terms of healthcare costs – and there’s so much else to explore.

These seem like quibbles, I realise, and it’s easy for a non-specialist who unquestionably reads too much science fiction to criticise. But I think we’re living through transformational times, with exponential change in every scientific and technological discipline – with far reaching implications for the entire health sector.