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How tech will take care of health at SXSW 2016

Stefan Trockel

South by Southwest 2016 is about to kick off with innovators and nerds, entrepreneurs and visionaries from all over the world beginning the annual pilgrimage of the tech community to Austin, Texas. And as we will enjoy the inspiring mix of tech talk, tacos and craft beer, the hot topic at this year’s SXSW seems to be health.

The prominence of health-tech does not come as a surprise. It’s rather a logical consequence of convergent technology trends: the recent innovation in wearable technologies combined with progress in artificial intelligence and our capabilities to turn big data into smart data. And following this convergence, we have arrived at the point that IT developers use the same artificial intelligence algorithms that optimise our music playlists or make product recommendations and apply them to our bodily functions.

What really draws health to the attention of the tech community might be more profane: the mainstream adoption of fitness trackers and health related internet of things devices has created a market size large enough to substantiate viable business models for health related startups. With wearables producing personal health data in unprecedented quality and volume, it’s an open call to innovate and disrupt the healthcare industry. So it will be very thrilling to hear the presentations and learn about the business models of upcoming health startups.

A large thread of sessions will discuss topics around data and how digital health platforms will empower patients to make informed decisions – either by understanding their own data or via simple expert consultations. We will see presentations that show how doctors with access to patient generated diagnostic data will be able to provide better patient experiences. Very soon a quick check-up with a physicist will not require a visit to his practice. We’ll just grant access to on-demand diagnostic data and the doctor will send you advice through an app. If that doctor is not even a human but driven by artificial intelligence, like suggested in the IEEE Tech for Humanity Series, this kind of innovation will also lower the access barriers for healthcare in general. After all, the usage of an app comes at a much lower price point than visiting a practice or laboratory.

While convenience and improved service will make patient care a much more seamless experience, the real paradigmatic shift lies in the diagnostic potential of data. And the great leap forward that is almost tangible throughout the sessions and discussions at SXSW lies in prediction. Being able to predict a health problem lets us eventually prevent it or at least have much more promising options for therapy.

For the wider healthcare industry innovation seems to run along the lines of product development – whether it be speciality pharma products that are customised to genome information, better ways of clinical studies for new drug candidates or smarter and more adaptive insurance products. A very fruitful approach for product ideation might be the MIT hosted #HackMed workshop that brings together patients and caregivers to identify needs and co-create solutions.

But wait. There obviously is an elephant in the room. What does all this mean for privacy? Who will access our health data? Will it result in more restrictive health policies? Will we still get insurance when the data says we have a high risk factor for a certain disease? It is good to see the opportunities for healthcare rooted in data, but any successful solution will have to answer questions like these as well.

So where is all this going? Well it’s already very common to let tech give us some gentle nudges for behavior change and help us be more active, eat well and sleep enough. Beyond that we see emerge promising startups that address widespread disease like diabetes or extend our autonomy in old age. What’s further down the road? Well, there are daring ideas being presented at SXSW 2016, like a chip-based human memory brain prosthetic, and no matter what will become of them, they will give you that feeling of grasping the future right there in Austin. And that is why everybody will be coming back in 2017.

Stefan Trockel is director of strategy at Publicis Pixelpark

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Stefan Trockel

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