We are approaching the end of the current age of medicine; the next one is broaching the horizon. The transition will almost certainly prove chaotic. Today’s healthcare system is underfunded, its core mission of healing perverted by dysfunctional economic incentives. The result is a hodgepodge of providers, tests and treatments, often operating in isolation. To make matters worse, this unstable assembly is on a collision course with a demographic onslaught: 65 million aging baby boomers.
Two huge forces will drive the disruption of American healthcare.
Though it has been only 12 years since the great map of the human genome was created, we are well into understanding the map’s profound and sublime intelligence. For example: We once thought that sickle cell disease and cystic fibrosis were the pathologic result of defective DNA. We now know that these defects, when distributed across a larger population, confer protection against malaria and cholera. We also know that our DNA can be mission-flexible, driven by external circumstances that guide the expression of some proteins at the expense of others.
This unlocking of our DNA has created two entirely new fields of healthcare: cellular therapies and regenerative medicine.
The best cellular therapies happen on a molecular basis inside the cell. Targeted chemotherapies kill cancer cells by exploiting the specific protein or DNA defects that made them cancerous. In regenerative medicine, the use of stem cells to repair diseased or lost tissue is moving quickly. From treating parkinsonism to rebuilding burned skin, your own stem cells will provide the means to heal.
Complementing our understanding of DNA is the power of computing and connectivity.
These two technologies will reach fruition when we figure out how to connect health records across providers—chaos, at the moment—and integrate data from personal health monitors into clinical practice. When these two goals are reached, every illness or injury will be both trackable and matchable against your DNA to determine the best cure. At that moment, the next age of medicine will have begun.
Amid all this change, there is a compelling role for the affluent. Wealthy families, by funding research that is meaningful to them, often bankroll a cure or process beneficial to millions. With government funding for medical research falling, medical philanthropy will be essential to maintaining progress.