Topol talks healthcare's digital future

The man once hailed by GQ Magazine as one of the 12 "rock stars of science" doesn't predict a rosy future for hospitals or medical clinics. But he does expect the individual consumer to be much more aware and proactive about healthcare.

In a Tuesday morning 2013 HIMSS Conference & Exhibition keynote replete with pop culture references and visual guides, Eric J. Topol, director of the Scripps Translational Science Institute and author of The Creative Destruction of Medicine: How the Digital Revolution Will Create Better Health Care, delivered a ringing endorsement of the smartphone as the healthcare delivery platform of the future.

Digital health has gotten to a point, he said, where the average consumer can measure and track vital signs and other physiological data through his or her smartphone, thereby creating a "Google map of each individual." That, he said, flies in the face of America's healthcare industry, which is poised to experience a technological revolution similar to the 'Arab Spring" revolts that swept through the Mideast.

"We practice medicine today at a population level," said Topol, who is also a cardiologist and the West Endowed Chair of Innovative Medicine at San Diego-based Scripps Health. "We do everything the same. We don't recognize each person as an individual."

And digital health, he said, will change all of that.

Topol argued that population health leads to wasteful and even potentially dangerous practices, such as prostate exams and mammograms. Digital health tools would enable each individual to determine if he or she would need a test, he said.

The smartphone – the "lab on a chip" – can and will replace the annual physical, Topol predicted, and offer opportunities to screen for a wide variety of ailments, from lung disease and eye problems to heart issues, high blood pressure and diabetes.

Topol predicted that healthcare would move away from the hospital – which George Orwell once called "the antechamber to the tomb" – and toward the home, with consumers in charge of their own health and health data and physicians propelled into the role of specialists.

He also touted the development of handheld genome sequencers, and said science and medicine are moving towards a day when an individual's genomes can be mapped and used to detect, cure and possibly even prevent diseases like cancer.

And all it's going to take, he said, is a sense of empowerment on the part of the individual, armed with a smartphone.

'What we need to do is tear down that wall," he said.