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Is Tech Going to Save America’s Bacon Yet Again?
French Hospital Institute for Children doctor talks face to face with a patient from Kabul, on May 13, 2012 (Photo: BAY ISMOYO/AFP/Getty Images)

Is Tech Going to Save America’s Bacon Yet Again?

Walter Russell Mead

The Wall Street Journal has an exciting piece up on the advances being seen in the burgeoning telemedicine sector. A taste:

Driven by faster internet connections, ubiquitous smartphones and changing insurance standards, more health providers are turning to electronic communications to do their jobs—and it’s upending the delivery of health care.

Doctors are linking up with patients by phone, email and webcam. They’re also consulting with each other electronically—sometimes to make split-second decisions on heart attacks and strokes. Patients, meanwhile, are using new devices to relay their blood pressure, heart rate and other vital signs to their doctors so they can manage chronic conditions at home. […]

As a measure of how rapidly telemedicine is spreading, consider: More than 15 million Americans received some kind of medical care remotely last year, according to the American Telemedicine Association, a trade group, which expects those numbers to grow by 30% this year.

The news that telemedicine is beginning to have a bigger impact is a much bigger story than many think. And watching the development of this promising field is important—not just because of what it means for American health care, but because of what it means about America’s future. Advances in telemedicine, small and marginal though they may appear at any given time, have the potential to be even more transformative and even more positive than the advances in oil and gas extraction that led to the fracking revolution.

The make-or-break question for America’s financial future is the cost of health care. If health care costs were under control, many of the biggest financial problems facing the federal government and state and local governments would diminish. Social Security, for all its challenges, is a problem the U.S. can live with; Medicare, Medicaid, veterans’ health costs are another story.

But the huge tax that America’s heavy health costs levy on the economy isn’t just in the form of government deficits. Rising health care costs help make infrastructure in the U.S. much more expensive than in other countries, thanks to the cost of health insurance for workers. Health care costs for teachers, police, firefighters and other employees raise the cost of government. In the private sector, rising health care costs have gobbled up the wage increases that workers would otherwise be getting. By raising the cost of hiring workers, they make it harder for new companies to become profitable, increase the costs for keeping jobs in the U.S. rather than shipping them overseas, and depress the profitability of companies across the board.

If we can reduce health care costs while making health care better, we can transform the future economic prospects of the American people. And that is not all. Bringing the information revolution to the field of health care is the biggest single economic opportunity out there today. It won’t just be in America that the future of health care depends on bringing the power of the information revolution to health care.

What America needs to do—and what our politicians would be talking about if they were looking forward and not back—is to develop a regulatory framework that supports the transformation of health care into something much better and much more affordable than the system we have today. If we build that kind of national marketplace, and if our tech innovators, our venture capitalists, our medical researchers and our practitioners can create a new kind of health care system, then American companies will own the future of health care worldwide the way Silicon Valley brought the U.S. a generation of leadership through its avalanche of innovation.

Government action and, more important, government policy has a role to play here. It may be that we need the health care equivalent of DARPA, aimed not at discovering new drugs but at revolutionizing the delivery of services and the relationship of people to the health care system. Regulators need to create a climate that favors innovation; consumers should be rewarded for embracing it; doctors and other health care providers rewarded for adjusting to it. Government programs that pay for or deliver health care need to be configured in ways that encourage the accelerated development, testing and deployment of new methods of tech-enabled medical service delivery that cut costs and improve outcomes.

Telemedicine is only one of the avenues through which the information revolution will transform health care for the better. In terms of public policy, there is no challenge and no opportunity as important as mobilizing the power of the information revolution in the service of American health.

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