We Need An Uber For Healthcare

ReadWriteBody is an ongoing series where ReadWrite covers networked fitness and the quantified self.

Yes, it’s tiresome how every new startup describes itself as an “X, but for Y.” When an early employee of Uber started working on a doctors-on-demand service, everyone inevitably called it an “Uber for healthcare,” ridiculing it as a luxury for the wealthy.

Yet I’ve come around to thinking that we do need an Uber for healthcare. We just have to think about Uber and healthcare differently.

Hailing A New Approach To Health

I’ll credit Daniel Kraft of Singularity University for this insight, who spoke Tuesday evening at an event called RXUX. Kraft argued that the “Uber-fication of healthcare” was inevitably coming. By that, he didn’t mean an app like Uber, but for medical care. He meant the preconditions for the rise of Uber-like apps within the field of healthcare.

Uber, on its surface, is an on-demand transportation company. You tap a button, a car comes to pick you up. The company has created sophisticated technology to match riders and drivers. Yet that invention would have been utterly impossible without other foundational technologies: widespread adoption of smartphones, pervasive high-speed cellular networks, location data, mapping services like Google Maps and Foursquare, and payment networks like Braintree. The company is now valued by its investors at $18 billion.

Google, Foursquare, and Braintree did not anticipate a car-hailing app when they created their services and made them available through public application programming interfaces and software-development kits. That’s part of Kraft’s point: Uber depended on open, accessible technologies whose uses were unpredictable.

The halls of hospitals now abound with iPads and Wi-Fi networks, and sci-fi devices like Star Trek’s tricorder are rapidly becoming a reality. Thanks to my (possibly treatable) addiction to fitness apps, I have a wealth of data about everything I’ve eaten and every workout I’ve done stretching back years. My health-insurance companies have records on my doctor visits and other medical treatments. Yet no one’s putting all of this together.

The Big Guys Won’t Help

Don’t count on Apple to fix the problem. There was an initial burst of enthusiasm about its recently unveiled HealthKit software, but the reality is that HealthKit is a muddled mess in its earliest stages of development. Apple’s data formats are arbitrary and incomplete, and the system is designed to sync data from your iPhone to Apple’s cloud servers—not connect all of the myriad devices, services and databases we use in modern healthcare.

Google, with its long experience with Web services and application programming interfaces, may do better with Google Fit, its rumored system for personal wellness data, though that reportedly has more of an emphasis on fitness activities like step tracking and workout logging. And Samsung has a system called SAMI, the Samsung Architecture for Multimodal Interactions, which it says will have uses for digital health tracking.

And I think it’s safe to say we can write off the whole army of companies providing electronic health records and other services to the healthcare industry. They’re too bound up in the current architecture of the healthcare system to understand the concerns of consumers.

I’m more optimistic that companies like MyFitnessPal or Jawbone, which are relatively generous in sharing their data and have a focus on their users’ health, will emerge as the central hub for what medical wonks call “self-reported data.” Pair them with health-information databases like WebMD and apps like the appointment-booking tool ZocDoc, and you can see how some new contender might emerge, just like Uber did in the field of transportation.

Uber’s Other Lessons

There are a few more things to take away from Uber. Taking an Uber ride, which started out as a luxury service, is now often cheaper than a taxi. We’re spending way too much on healthcare, for too little in the way of results. We need to cut down costs and drastically improve coordination and data sharing.

That may require Uber’s defiant attitude towards regulation. The Food and Drug Administration and other regulators mean well. But anyone who’s dealt with the requirements of laws like HIPAA, which I believe stands for the Healthcare Innovation Prevention and Aggravation Act, knows that measures meant to protect patient privacy end up just creating paperwork. Dropbox isn’t HIPAA-compliant, but doctors have been using it for years. 23andMe is feuding with the FDA over whether people can get their own genome analyzed and learn about published medical studies that may help them interpret the results.

I’m not sure there’s anything to be done with the Gordian knot of regulation other than to take a sword to it—and then stitch things back together to make sure patients are still protected and doctors apply the right caution to their work. It may be messy—but it sounds less messy than what we have today.

Lead image by Flickr user Waldo Jaquith, CC 2.0

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