The scene is so common it barely has to be set. A doctor’s office visit—waiting room with old magazines, TV tuned to morning chat shows or CNN, and coughing/sneezing patients sitting for an hour just to see a doctor for a few minutes. Despite all the hoopla about the Affordable Care Act, and what it will mean for the U.S., the fundamental experience of going to the doctor hasn’t changed and while innovation and experimentation are inherent to the field of medicine, they aren’t as common in how healthcare is delivered.
However, the lack of innovation in healthcare may be changing. Healthcare, like education, is having to embrace the disruptive power of online interaction; which is leading healthcare access to be revolutionized around concepts like crowdsourcing, social networking and open-source software. The disruption is allowing for DIY culture to begin changing the dynamics of the healthcare industry.
For years DIY healthcare meant little more than matching symptoms on WebMD and hoping that coughing, sneezing, fatigue and body aches was the common cold and not pneumonia. However, now the market for DIY healthcare information has exploded with more than 13,000 health related apps in the Apple app store alone. Mobile healthcare was already a $1.7 billion industry in 2010 and it’s predicted to grow to $9.3 billion by 2014. However good the projections for mobile healthcare are, the DIY healthcare movement has already grown past apps that let users scan and track their moles or monitor their heart rate and blood pressure.
The digital revolution is taking patient support groups out of church basements and turning them into a global social network. Paul Wicks of PatientsLikeMe.com told the Washington Post that the goal of a social network for chronically ill people is to “be able to crowd source a cure by pooling together data about their symptoms.”
Even though it’s a relatively young movement, DIY healthcare has already adopted some of the characteristics that defined “DIY computing in the late 1970s and early 1980s, chief among them open source. Open source, which began as a way to increase access to software and computers, is a natural outgrowth of any DIY movement, and when DIY reached healthcare the movement brought an open source approach to medical devices.
At $105.8 billion, with a per capita expenditure of $339, it’s no secret that the U.S. medical device market is big business, and it is only projected to grow. The U.S. prosthetics industry alone is expected to grow to over $5 billion by 2013. Currently between 160,000 and 180,000 amputations requiring prosthetics are performed every year, but the amount of medically necessary amputations is expected to dramatically rise by 2030.
An article in a 2009 Vascular Disease Foundation newsletter predicts that one-eighth of the 20 million people in the U.S. living with diabetes will require amputation because of poor blood flow. Currently the cost of a prosthetic leg can range from $5,000 to $50,000 while the cost of a prosthetic arm can run anywhere from $3,000 to $30,000.
The high growth rate coupled with the high cost of prosthetics has led to some tech-minded activists to start the Open Prosthetics Project, a grassroots movement to reduce the cost and spread the availability of prosthetics. Like the open source movement did with software, Open Prosthetics seeks to expand access to prosthetics by reducing the cost for items such asbody powered hooks and the suspension systems necessary to use them.
DIY healthcare isn’t just being practiced by patients and activists, some forward thinking doctors are using blogs and online videos to provide patients with lessons in understanding everything from injuries to medication dosages.
For-profit organizations have also gotten in on the DIY healthcare craze, and the services being offered to patients range from streamlining communication with healthcare providers to direct-to-consumer screenings, including CT scans, X-rays and a rapid response, take-home HIV test, that are available without a recommendation from a doctor.
While the increased availability of services and information has been embraced by some healthcare providers, others see DIY healthcare as a mixed blessing. Healthcare blog Health Populi stated that “self-service healthcare” is not enough to provide a comprehensive patient care. And Dr. Kimberly Lovett, assistant clinical professor of family and preventive medicine at UC-San Diego, told Insure.com that while commercial, or direct to consumer, screenings can “improve patient autonomy and lead to greater transparency and competition in health care” the lack of oversight and physician guidance can expose patients to “tremendous and unnecessary harm.”
Follow Alex Wukman on @AlexWukmanCMN