A few years ago, I briefly suffered from agonizing upper back pain that was eventually linked to years of unintended slouching over my work computer and my smartphone addiction. Fortunately for me, a swift, albeit temporary increase in my exercise regimen, physical therapy, and behavior modifications resolved my issue. But since then, I’ve often lamented the negatives enabled by new technologies, especially as I witness the device-binging habits of my kids every day!
Rapid advances in technology have been a boon to human productivity in recent decades. Major progress in terms of the power/cost of computers, combined with ubiquitous connectivity and improvements in software development have enabled innovations that have significantly altered lifestyles in the work environment, socially and at home. But the benefits appear to be coming at a cost as new technologies are also advocating habits that have profound long-term health implications.
According to a recent Morgan Stanley report on healthcare and technology, there were approximately 4.0 digital screens per person in 2018 compared to 0.7 in the year 2000. In 2018, smart device usage among U.S. adults was 3.6 hours per day and total digital media usage stood at 6.3 hours per day. Such pervasive intrusion of devices combined with increasingly sedentary habits is complicating aspects of human health across populations. Without suggesting causation, the Morgan Stanley report highlights worrisome increases in health conditions in recent years like Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), depression, obesity, diabetes, eye diseases, hearing loss and of course, orthopedic conditions. Separately, social media also appears to be leading to increased anxiety, cyberbullying and self-consciousness among teenagers, resulting in links to higher suicide rates.
While the above trends are disheartening, technology is also enabling innovations that already do, and will in the future, provide significant benefits to many other facets of human health. As Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum wrote in 2015, we are now at the beginning of the fourth industrial revolution. This revolution “is characterized by a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres” with the speed of current breakthroughs having “no historical precedent.” Without digressing, we highlight that Mr. Schwab goes on to note the impending disruption across industries and the challenges that this revolution will bring for businesses, governments and people.
The key drivers of the third (or digital) revolution – massive increase in computing capabilities at lower cost, when combined with the proliferation of cheap/smart hardware, better software programming and smarter algorithms is allowing for this bridging of physical and biological spheres, leading to the fourth revolution.
Such advances in technology are leading to a range of breakthroughs. The cost to sequence a human genome – the understanding of which is essential to investigate a vast range of conditions and diseases – has plummeted from a $100 million to just $1,000 since 2001. New developments are also deepening our understanding of biological pathways while accelerating drug discovery and use of robotics in surgeries. Imaging technologies are getting better, the use of artificial intelligence is providing insights to enable better decision making and customized immunotherapies for cancer and 3D-printed knees or spinal implants are already here today.
Companies and researchers are also working towards building better exoskeletons and using 3D printers for printing engineered organisms or real biological organs that could someday be used as replacements for human organs. New domains like synthetic biology, which converges chemistry, biology, computer science and engineering to develop alternatives for a wide range of biological substances are advancing rapidly as well. Many other companies are also leveraging technology to personalize healthcare, developing wearable devices that monitor key health indicators real-time, while others reinvent how drugs and health services are delivered in an effort to manage the staggering rise in the cost of healthcare.
By no means is this an exhaustive list of all the innovation that technology is enabling in healthcare and by no means are successful outcomes a given. Nonetheless, a disruptive shift in healthcare is underway that will test the resilience of many existing companies, while allowing newer ones to flourish. As long-term investors, however, change provides the potential for significant wealth creation – an outcome we strive for on behalf of our clients every day.