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Column: The Brave New World of Medicine

Health care is a misnomer for our medical system. It should be called sick care. Doctors, hospitals and pharmaceutical companies only make money when we are in bad health. If we could instead prevent illness and disease, it would turn the entire medical system on its head and increase the quality of our lives.

The good news is that technology is on its way to letting us do this. It is now moving so rapidly that within a decade the small handheld medical reader used by Dr. Leonard McCoy in Star Trek — the tricorder — will look primitive. We are moving into an era of data-driven, crowd-sourced, participatory, genomics-based medicine. Just as our bathroom scales give us instant readings of our weight, wearable devices will monitor our health and warn us when we are about to get sick. Our doctors — or their artificial intelligence replacements — will prescribe medicines or lifestyle changes based on our full medical history, holistic self and genetic composition.

It wasn’t long ago when our only recourse when we doubted our doctor’s prescription was to seek a second opinion. Now when we need information about an ailment we search on the Internet. We have access to more medical knowledge than our doctors used to have via their medical books and journals, and our information is more up-to-date than those medical books were. We can read about the latest medical advances anywhere in the world. We can visit online forums to learn from others with the same symptoms, provide each other with support and discuss the side effects of our medicines. We can download mobile applications that help us manage our health. All of this can be done by anyone with a smartphone.

Our smartphones also contain a wide array of sensors, including an accelerometer that keeps track of our movement, a high-definition camera that can photograph external ailments and transmit them for analysis, and a global positioning system that knows where we have been. Wearable devices such as Fitbit, Nike and Jawbone are commonly being used to monitor the intensity of our activity; a heart monitor such as one from Alivecor can display our electrocardiogram; several products on the market can monitor our blood pressure, blood glucose, blood oxygen, respiration and even our sleep. Soon we will have sensors that analyze our bowel and bladder habits and food intake. All of these will feed data into our smartphones and cloud-based personal lockers. Our smartphone will become a medical device akin to the Star Trek tricorder.

When we get sick, we won’t need to go — in high temperature and in severe pain — to our doctors’ offices, only to wait in line with patients who have other diseases that we may catch. Our doctors will come to us, over the Internet. Telemedicine is already a fast-growing field; doctors have been assisting people in remote areas by using two-way video, email and smartphones. They will increasingly assist us in our homes. Our smartphone and body sensors will provide them with better medical data than they usually have today.

Then our smartphones will evolve further and do part of the job of doctors.

The same type of artificial intelligence technology that IBM Watson used to defeat champions on the TV game show Jeopardy will monitor our health data, predict disease and advise on how to improve our health. Already, IBM Watson has learned about all the advances in oncology and is better at diagnosing cancer than our human doctors. Watson and its competitors will soon learn about every other field of medicine, and will provide us with better, and better-informed, advice than our doctors do. They will take a more holistic view of our bodies, lifestyles and symptoms than our doctors can. They will, after all, have our full medical history from childhood, know where we have been, and keep track of our medical data on a minute-by-minute basis. Most doctors still work from brief, unintelligible, hand-scribbled notes and try to make a judgment about what medicines to prescribe us in a 10- to 15-minute consultation; they treat symptoms of interest but can overlook the bigger picture of where the treatment leads.

Artificial intelligence technologies will also analyze continual data from millions of patients and on the medications that they have taken to determine which of these truly had a positive effect; which simply created adverse reactions and new ailments; and which did both. This will transform the way in which drugs are tested and prescribed. In the hands of independent researchers, these data will upend the pharmaceutical industry — which works on limited clinical-trial data and sometimes chooses to ignore information that does not suit it.

This is just the tip of the iceberg.

We learned how to sequence the genome about a decade ago, and sequencing it cost billions. Today a full human genome sequence costs as little as $1,000. At the rate at which prices are dropping, it will cost less within five years than a blood test does today. So it is now becoming affordable to compare one person’s DNA with another’s, learn what diseases those with similar genetics have had in common, and discover how effective different medications or other interventions were in treating them. Today, medicines are prescribed on a one-size-fits-all basis. In the future, you can expect to see doctors tailor treatment for diseases on the basis of an individual’s genomic information and lifestyle.

We can also now “write” DNA. In the emerging field of synthetic biology, researchers and even high-school students, are creating new organisms and synthetic life forms. Entrepreneurs have developed software tools to “design” DNA. These technologies provide the ability to generate designer drugs, therapeutic vaccines and microorganisms. Like all technologies that modify fundamental biology without a complete understanding of how environment, DNA, protein production and cell biology interact, this introduces new risks because we could engineer dangerous new organisms. But, used appropriately, this field may dramatically affect the development of novel, and more effective, therapeutics.

Ultimately, disease prevention is about lifestyle and habits as well as about genome and exposure to disease. Technology combined with good habits can create the health care system that we really need. We’re not dependent on Big Pharma, the medical establishment, or even the Food and Drug Administration. Medicine has become an information technology. The advances in health care are being developed by entrepreneurs and scientists all over the world. There is no stopping this.

Vivek Wadhwa is a fellow at Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford University, director of research at Duke University, and distinguished scholar at Singularity and Emory universities.