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Giving Thanks for Leading Health Technology Advances

Giving Thanks for Leading Health Technology Advances

There have been striking advances in healthcare, thanks to technology, that have nothing to do with the controversial "reform" efforts under way in Washington. Among the life-improving -- even potentially life-saving -- gifts of recent years: less costly genome sequencing; health-promoting iPhone applications; electronic health records; and crowdsourcing for better living.

By Sonia Arrison
11/25/09 4:00 AM PT

While Congress debates an US$850 billion healthcare bill with questionable benefits, leaders in the technology industry are quietly creating products and services that will truly reform healthcare. This Thanksgiving, for example, Americans can be appreciative of the incredible price decline in genome sequencing, one of the most important health advances.

The genome is like the source code for humans, and cheap sequencing for individuals will kick-start a real revolution in personalized medicine. Advances in the biotech industry are moving faster than Moore's Law, making the price differentials for sequencing on a yearly basis almost unfathomable.

For instance, the first Human Genome Project cost roughly $2.7 billion. In 2007, it cost about $2 million to sequence James Watson's genome. As of this month, California-based Complete Genomics announced that it had sequenced three genomes for well under $10,000.

"This high-quality, cost-effective approach to genome sequencing will allow researchers to study complete genomes from hundreds of patients with a disease to advance the understanding of the genetic causes of that disease, with an end to preventing and treating common human ailments," said Cliff Reid, chairman, president and CEO of Complete Genomics.

Health-Boosting Apps

Of course, Complete Genomics is not alone in this area, and competition will create enormous benefits for all human beings, including the ability to re-engineer parts of our bodies that aren't working well.

Another tech-driven area that helps to personalize medicine is the large selection of iPhone applications aimed at giving individuals better control over their health.

One example is Epocrates, which lets users view up-to-date clinical data and check for drug interactions -- an ability that can help save lives.

A similar mass consumer technology that has had a big impact is the Nike + iPod sensor system, which lets individuals keep track of their runs. By logging data such as hours and miles completed, the system helps motivate people to exercise more than they would otherwise do.

So far, more than 1.2 million runners have together tracked more than 130 million miles and expended more than 13 billion calories, reported Wired magazine. And even nonrunners can increasingly access electronic health records.

Both Microsoft and Google will attest that getting doctors and hospitals to agree to put patient data in electronic and sharable form has not been easy, since it requires a big culture change. Still, there has been progress.

Electronic Records May Save Lives

For instance, one of the leaders in electronic health records is Allscripts, which boasts a clientele of more than 160,000 physicians and 800 hospitals.

There are also scrappy startups like Practice Fusion, a company based on the SalesForce.com platform that offers free record systems for doctors and then uses that data to "instantly connect the patient to his or her actual medical record from the doctor's office." Such a service is not only convenient but can also save lives.

More than 7,000 people die each year from preventable medication errors, according to Allscripts. If a patient's complete medical data were available in an easy-to-access electronic format, then fewer errors due to such mistakes as prescribing an incorrect medication would likely occur.

Meanwhile, crowdsourced systems with a medical theme also promise to help people live better.

An interesting example is CureTogether, a Yelp-like service that allows users to share information about their health issues and rank remedies. For instance, the top-rated solution for fixing allergies is "avoiding allergens" followed closely by "Claritin." Such a community allows data collection that can highlight associations between conditions previously ignored, such as the link between infertility and asthma.

This is only a short list of new technologies in the field of healthcare, and many more new health technologies are advancing. It is thanks to a large number of innovative entrepreneurs that Americans will see technology radically transform medicine -- something to think about over the holidays and as Congress continues to discuss healthcare "reform."


Sonia Arrison, a TechNewsWorld columnist, is senior fellow in technology studies at the California-based Pacific Research Institute. Follow her on Twitter @soniaarrison


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