A report this month by the McKinsey Global Institute — the subject of a story on The Washington Post’s Wonkblog — identified 12 “disruptive technologies” that could be transformative for the U.S. economy.
Such a forecast necessitates some parameters, of course. The authors, led by MGI Director James Manyika, DPhil, restricted their survey to already-established technologies which could have impacts across industries with a high potential economic impact. And with any forecast, the results are hardly ironclad. But, as Wonkblog contributor Neil Irwin writes, the study “represent[s] a serious effort by some smart people to quantify what appear to be some major forces shaping our technological future.”
Of most concern for us is next-generation genomics, which ranked seventh; the report estimates that its potential economic impact could range from $700 billion to $1.6 trillion per year by 2025. It’s important to note that this includes advances beyond health care, in areas such as agriculture, biofuels and energy; but the report also states that 80% of the total impact would come through health care innovation. The technology is not without risk, however, whether it relates unintended consequences, intended consequences (bioterrorism), or something else entirely (privacy concerns about patients’ genetic data).
It doesn’t take much imagination to see many of these technologies making an indelible mark on health care and public health. And it’s going to take no small amount of continued research for these technologies to reach their full health care potential.
- Mobile Internet (ranked first): Many of us are already wedded to our smartphones; it’s not hard to imagine doctors utilizing that technology for health care. Indeed, the report cites health care as one of the biggest potential benefactors. For instance, the report notes, it’s possible to see a 10%-20% reduction in the cost of treating chronic disease through remote monitoring.
- Automation of knowledge work (second): The report defines this as “the use of computers to perform tasks that rely on complex analyses, subtle judgments and creative problem solving.” Research!America’s 2012 annual report includes just such an application in health care via a quote from National Library of Medicine Director Donald Lindberg, MD, a 2012 Advocacy Award winner: “Though the discussions are still in preliminary stages, I am now advocating the use of technology, including IBM’s Watson, to develop logic that can answer the thousands of health-related questions NLM gets from patients, their families and the public on a daily basis. The questions we get are much harder to answer than I originally guessed.”
- Internet of things (third): A definition is necessary here; this refers to the use of embedded sensors and similar equipment that can be used to track or control an object through a data network or the Internet. Indeed, in its definition, the report specifically mentions pacemakers; and as with mobile Internet, the potential to affect health care is considerable. The report imagines a breathtaking reduction — 80% to 100% — in drug counterfeiting, and 30 minutes to one hour saved, per day, by nurses, again through remote monitoring.
- Cloud (fourth): Cloud computing, or distributed computing through a network (usually the Internet), allows storage and computing power to be shared. If networks and connections can be robust enough to assuage privacy concerns, there could be massive potential for health care in combination with mobile Internet technology.
- Advanced robotics (fifth): Robotic surgery systems are already on the market today. Though the reviews are mixed, it’s not hard to imagine this — like any other technology — will improve and become more cost efficient with more time and development.
- Autonomous and near-autonomous vehicles (sixth): Eliminating driver error would have massive effects on public health and pedestrian safety. That’s not to say computers are infallible, of course, or that equipment would never break. But the idea of slashing motor vehicle deaths is impossible to ignore.
- 3D printing (ninth): Earlier this month, a 3D printer created a bionic ear. The possibilities are as staggering as they are scary.
- Advanced materials (10th): This includes nanomaterials, which have incredible potential as drugs on their own. But the scope is larger than that, and it includes self-healing materials and “memory metals.” Drug delivery is reported as the biggest beneficiary; the economic impact could range between $150 billion and $500 billion by 2025.