I’m pretty sure that when asked to talk about the future of healthcare, there’s an expectation I’ll make sense of the awesome ideas, people, and technologies transforming the way we experience our health. For a field notorious for slow evolution, change in health now whizzes ahead so fast, with innovation cropping up in accelerators, labs, incubators, and Twitter feeds all around the globe. But for me, it’s about looking at these developments from a different perspective. For me, it’s time to ensure compassion is central to the conversation.
Distracted by the shiny?
When people talk about the future of healthcare, they talk about tech. Sometimes it’s inspiring. Ambulance drones drop life-saving treatments in remote, previously inaccessible regions. Virtual reality glasses take people with dementia back in time to reconnect with lost memories, and devices the size of a pen can now detect cancerous tissue in minutes with greater than 95% accuracy.
Sometimes it’s practical. In the U.K., starting next year, the National Health System will launch a smartphone app for medical advice, appointments, and prescriptions, and your ear will likely become the next body part to sport a wearable monitor.
Take your cold robot hands off my care, but feel free to use your big data on my diagnosis
Sometimes, the way we describe the future of healthcare strays into the terrifying.
A well-known medical futurist wrote a piece imagining that, not long from now, a man’s evening plans were automatically replaced with an urgent appointment at the nearest liver cancer center by the robot in charge of his care based on her read of data from symptom trackers embedded in his medical tattoos and other diagnostic skin implants. On arrival, he’s diagnosed, given a treatment plan, and his friends are sent a text with the news. In the course of an evening, he becomes someone with cancer without ever talking to a human. He’s left feeling isolated, scared, and unsure. In healthcare’s new reality, we must do better for our future selves.
In many ways, we already are. The use of data and machine learning in diagnosis and treatment recommendations is improving health outcomes, reducing risk, eliminating error, and saving money for crippled health systems.
When we look at these advances, we must also prioritise compassion – we must think about the way we show people we are listening to their needs, including them in decisions about their care and supporting them through the health system with touch, kindness, high quality information shared appropriately and sensitively, with care.
Compassion needs a better value story
Some argue that you can’t quantify compassion’s contribution to medical care. My feeling is that only when we communicate its value in meaningful ways, rather than merely appreciate it, will we attract the financial, talent, and creative investment needed to fuel a more caring future alongside new technologies.
Campaigns such as Hello My Name Is in the U.K., which urged health professionals to have conversations with the people they care for, are excellent, if not shiny, examples of how new thinking can improve care, often at very low cost. Graphic design and architecture are considering the personal experience of care to greater degrees than ever before. Hackathons have proven so valuable to healthcare that we are now looking to quantify their impact. The conversation that recognizes the contributions of creativity not only to technology, but also to compassionate care must become louder.
As the future unfolds we have an obligation, especially those of us whose job it is to communicate about healthcare’s new reality, to create a much more transparent and informed public understanding about what’s ahead. Schools, museums, and public-private partnerships should take up the challenge of telling one of the greatest, most important stories we have to write: how creativity fueled the compassion in care and technology that kept healthcare human.