Individualized healthcare brought to you by Silicon Valley

Silicon Valley wading into individualized healthcare

It looks like Big Pharma will have some competition from the hi-tech world.  On a number of fronts, the big names of Silicon Valley are aiming to be competitive stakeholders in the healthcare sector.  23andme, a Google-backed personal genetic testing service, is opening an R&D department to design its own personalized medicine.  Both Apple and Samsung will work with major academic institutions to work on health apps used on mobile devices.  Days after sending nervous tremors throughout the Swiss watch industry with the announcement o f a new Smart watch, the technology giants have leapt into pharmaceutical and health device industries.

From econ 101, the concept of division of labour has long been touted as the driving force of capitalism. It is what brings efficiency to our market economy as everyone knows what role they play and stay within its confines.  Instead of being a jack of all trades, we prefer to thrive in our own little niche sectors.  And it has worked very well. Could the tech sector be turning this concept on its head?

There is no doubt that by wading into the healthcare industry, the technology sector will bring its expertise to a traditionally conservative territory.  And this hardly spells doom and gloom for a billion-dollar industry such as Big Pharma or medical device makers.  For example, 23andme, with its impressive repository of genetic information, could establish a supplementary role to its drug-maker partners since the latter has decades of accumulated experience in working through various regulatory hurdles.  The pharmaceutical industry has been struggling with personalized medicine with very little success.  The powerful genetic data from 23andme would provide the additional resources to the drug industry.  To have 23andme venture into pharmaceutical R&D on its own is not an efficient allocation of their resources.  Instead, 23andme should continue its focus on what it does best – by refining the personal genetic testing services.

Similarly in the digital health field, there are a few concerns.  First, health monitoring applications assume that all of us are attached to our smart phones.   But the reality is that older people, many in the boomer generation, which comprises a significant percentage of population, are still heavily dependent on traditional diagnostic devices such as blood pressure monitors and glucose meters.  Just like the traditional publishing industry would not go away because of Kindle.   The device manufacturers are well respected in their field through years of research and experience with the FDA in premarket clearance.  Second, smart phones, rather than being traditional communication tools, would have to be approved as medical devices by regulatory authorities.  The smart phone industry likely has not had the experience of being subject to regulatory processes as medical device makers.  Once again, it is a whole different terrain marked by unfamiliar hurdles and scientific processes that have essentially been worked out by the traditional medical device industry.   However, in this rapidly-changing technological environment, both the tech industry and traditional manufacturers could collaborate on enhancing the user experience.  Each sector has a set of unique skills to bring to the collaborative commons.

Still, none of this is to undermine Silicon Valley’s potential to be a respectable resource in the health care industry.  Obviously, there are areas where apps could come in handy, for example, in collecting data where traditional patient recruitment for clinical trials is difficult.   However, to reinvent the wheel in the name of individualized health care seems redundant in light of the vast sea of knowledge out there.   For both personalized medicine and health monitoring, Silicon Valley will always remain as a strong pillar of technological support.  The Swiss are right.  The expertise, quality and track record of the traditional industry are not easily replaceable.  If history is any guide, our economy runs well with specialization and even better with exchange of expertise.



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