SXSW 2014: Technology and Health

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In Part 1 of his SXSW blog series, Robert Egert recaps some of the SXSW themes that are transforming the way the world looks at healthcare.

Massive—that’s the first thing you need to understand about the SXSW experience. At any given time, there are 30 to 50 events to choose from taking place in multiple locations throughout downtown Austin. This means that, unlike conventional conferences, each individual attendee cuts his or her own path through the events by selecting and reselecting from the nearly unmanageable array of keynotes, panel discussions, presentations, and workshops.

Events that feature celebrity speakers or that focus on hot topics can fill up quickly. Dashing from event to event, waiting in long lines, and striking up random conversations en route is part of the experience. Many events include audience QA, so if it suits your fancy you can become part of the public conversation, even if you aren’t an official presenter.

Here’s a highly personal recap of the themes, issues, and events that impressed, stimulated, and/or frightened me:

BIOMETRICS

The Idea: The pervasive collection of quantified biometric data will transform healthcare.

Wearable, implanted, and otherwise applied technologies will collect vast amounts of data on each of us throughout the day and night regardless of where we are or what we are doing. The collected data won’t only be sent to our phones—it will also be shared with physicians and aggregated into an ever-expanding library of health data.

This library can be used to evaluate the impacts of lifestyle choices on health and longevity (how much of what kinds of exercise must you do to reduce hypertension?). They can also measure the impact of pharmacologic therapies (which drug was more effective?), they can help identify disease patterns (what patterns around comorbidity should be looked at?), and they can provide real-time reports on just about anything you want to know about human behavior and health.

Why this is important:

If we combine biometrics with the predictive capabilities of DNA analysis, we’ll be able to obtain a detailed image of our individual health within the larger social context.

CROWD-SOURCED DRUG DISCOVERY

The Idea: Crowd-sourcing health studies and clinical trials.

Current approaches to drug testing and conducting health studies are expensive, slow, and cumbersome. What if we used crowd-sourcing to answer quantifiable health questions?

Jessica Richman, who is the founder of uBiome, a start-up that uses a crowd-sourced approach to collecting scientific health data, proposes that we dramatically change our approach to scientific inquiry. She suggests that with the right protocols and infrastructure in place, crowd-sourcing will be used to speed the evaluation of new products, measure the effectiveness and safety of products already in-market, and obtain quantifiable data on the health impacts of lifestyle choices.

This approach promises to allow us to quickly and efficiently collect larger data sets than ever before. But with this comes the responsibility to maintain processes and checks to maintain scientific integrity.

Why this is important:

It can dramatically reduce the cost of conducting health and drug studies, and it can generate libraries of data for ad hoc inquiry and analysis.

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