What will the future of health and healthcare look like? In a series of blog posts by the World Economic Forum’s Strategic Foresight and Health teams, a number of leading voices will present their own visions for the future. Contributions are linked to the Scenarios for Sustainable Health Systems project, the Workplace Wellness Alliance and the Healthy Living Initiative. In the following post, Andrew Thompson, Chief Executive Officer of Proteus Digital Health, shares his perspective on the future of health.

Healthcare in the 21st century will be transformed by a new utility more available than water or electricity: mobile Internet. In the 20th century, we all plugged into electricity and transformed our homes, factories and hospitals. In this century, we are all plugging into the Internet, and even greater benefits are emerging.

The potential to create new models of access, payment and innovation in healthcare is something existing large players may be reluctant to embrace. It threatens established power structures in governments, major pharmaceutical companies, physician practices and nursing care systems. So, until the problems we face in our current healthcare system become a full-blown crisis, the pace of change may seem rather slow. But the crisis is coming and the Internet is already here. And when change comes, instead of healthcare being powered by them, it’s going to be powered by you.

About the only thing spreading faster than chronic disease – dementia, depression and diabetes – is mobile phones. Many owners of these devices are the people who manage chronic disease day to day: family caregivers, usually women who are mothers and adult daughters. Today, this is already by far the largest group of healthcare workers in the world. The most important tools they have are medicines. In the future, they will get help from their mobile phones as well.

We know medicines have tremendous therapeutic potential. We also know that, in much of the world, the supply of medicine is corrupted by fakes. Even when real drugs are available, there is a good chance they won’t get used properly. That’s not because mothers and adult daughters are incapable. The problem is that they are most often not trained healthcare workers: they need information, education and motivation to use medicines properly.

Digital technology can be used to solve these problems. Medicines can be quickly authenticated by a mobile phone at point-of-sale, their use tracked by the consumer and individual response measured – automatically. This kind of information can assist patients learning to take medicines at the correct time, help titrate doses to get the right amount of drug, rotate to a different medicine if it’s not working and maybe eliminate drugs that are not helpful. These simple steps, combined with minor changes in behaviour, can often be the key to staying at home and avoiding an expensive hospital visit.

This prescription for digital health is not a wild dream. It’s a paradigm all around us already – for shopping, entertainment and financial services. Health is poised to catch up.

Many folks think the big barrier is persuading someone else – a government or insurance company – to pay for these digital health products before they get commercialized. That could mean a big complicated clinical study, likely requiring years of testing with costs built into the resulting product. Think “expensive”.

I don’t agree. The big barrier is creating a solution so obvious, so useful, so full of delight and so affordable that many mothers would pay themselves. Think “value for money”. Governments and private insurance companies will quickly pay for products if they deliver health benefits in the real world, and evidence gathered through regular consumers will be the most convincing.

That means being focused on delivering solutions that help real people right away, as well as delivering on longer-term clinical results. The kind of immediate value I am thinking about includes ensuring grandmas with heart failure feel safe at home, sons with bipolar disease sense love when they are away at college, daughters with diabetes understand how to stay stable and mothers are reassured that they have the tools they need to keep their family as healthy as they can be, wherever they are.

Don’t blink. There are 5.5 billion people with a mobile phone around the globe. Mothers are everywhere as well. And we just can’t afford our current healthcare system. Digital health for everyone will be everywhere, and much sooner than you may expect.

Author: Andrew Thompson, Chief Executive Officer, Proteus Digital Health, USA

Image: A woman is seen using her mobile phone REUTERS/Jorge Silva