A recent US study found that 30 percent of health care expenditures were squandered on needless tests and services!
But at the same time it is clear that medical tests are performed far too infrequently. Most are only performed when a physician suspects that they could diagnose a disease condition.
The routine, automated measurement of multiple parameters, recorded over time, and cross-correlated, is likely to be hugely beneficial (see recent post) to individuals. It will enable near-real time, health monitoring, rather than disease testing. And there will be tremendous insights possible from the resulting surge of big data.
For this to happen though, the costs of medical tests will have to drop by several or even many orders of magnitude. The well-known Moore’s Law has shown how digital technologies increase in power to cost exponentially. But there is a more recent and biologically relevant example, which is the cost of sequencing DNA. Here is a graphic from the National Human Genome Research Institute which illustrates exactly how precipitously the cost has dropped even compared to Moore’s Law:
So refinements of a current technology can occur according to Moore’s Law, while the introduction of a new technology can yield an even greater benefit.
The technologies behind modern medical tests are not applicable to mobile, digital health applications, so new technologies will have to be devised. This is the aim of the Nokia sensing X-PRIZE and the Qualcomm Tricorder X-PRIZE.
A simple, one-time, EKG typically costs $50 to perform, while an exercise stress test costs $200-$300 and captures data over perhaps 20 minutes. These costs are comparable to the purchase price of some mobile devices that can continuously measure EKG, albeit currently through ‘single lead’ methods.
But the technology costs of current medical tests are probably only a small portion of overall testing costs. Inefficiencies in scheduling and information management are significant. As noted in the earlier cited study, 20% of patients report that test results or records were not transferred in time for an appointment, and 25% reported that their provider reordered the same test.
A large portion of the testing costs can be ascribed to labour dues to the many manual methods still used, such as drawing blood, delivering samples and manually entering data. Additionally infrastructure costs are considerable.
The introduction of digital technologies available to consumers will reduce the need for traditional medical testing organizations, while dramatically increasing the need for cloud-based organizations to help manage and interpret the flood of new information – big data.
We’ve seen this story before as online stores have replaced bricks-and-mortar stores, and as publishers, movie studios and television networks faced disruption. It looks like we will see it again in medical testing.