Let's Welcome Our Robot Physicians


In a brilliant op-ed at the Wall Street Journal, Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen &co. make the point that the American healthcare system needs a strong dose of disruptive innovation to start addressing the issue of costs. At the core, he writes, the problem with the ACA is that Accountable Care Organizations "most assuredly will not...deliver [this] disruptive innovation."

Christensen is definitely on to something - particularly when he recognizes the importance of technologies that allow price and quality competition (such as telemedicine) to give more control over health care decisions to patients. And it shouldn't be surprising that a recent foray into this market has arrived at Wal-Mart.

The super-retailer already offers retail walk-in clinics at many locations, with low-cost services that include vaccinations, blood sugar testing, and cholesterol screenings. But it seems this was only the beginning for Wal-Mart. The cheaper a technology is (assuming equivalent quality), the more disruptive it is. What's cheaper than free? In October of last year, the retailer partnered with Solohealth, a company that develops retail "health stations" that offer basic medical tests, to install hundreds of the health stations at its retail locations.

These health stations will allow Wal-Mart customers to run basic tests like a vision and BMI check at no cost. Based on the test results, the health station will spit out a list of doctors in the surrounding area that the customer can go see. Certainly, this is a brilliant move on Wal-Mart's part - you probably rarely go to the doctor, but you're at Wal-Mart pretty often. But more than that, this echoes Christensen's point about disruptive health care innovation - while these health stations won't replace a doctor (and are not a panacea for growing health care costs), they're a great step towards more efficient use of health care resources. It isn't a stretch to imagine similar health stations offering quick and cheap video calls with doctors to answer some basic questions. Looking further down the line is even more exciting - algorithms and whole language machine learning are making computers as smart (or smarter) than the best human doctor (think of the holographic doctor in Star Trek Voyager).  And the cost of sending these "doctors" to medical school is essentially zero for the marginal patient. But one step at a time.

By ensuring that these health kiosks will be at one of the world's largest retailers, people may even start thinking about health care a little differently. Right now, when someone thinks about health care, they don't think of it as a commodity - you don't pay for it; your insurance company does. When you see your doctor and he tells you that you have a cold but he'll prescribe antibiotics anyway "just to be safe" - you don't ask why. And part of this is due to the informational asymmetry inherent in health care - let's face it, the doctor is a professional and holds a wealth of knowledge about human physiology that you, as a consumer, likely don't have. But that doesn't mean you can't be a little more educated. When you go to get your car fixed after a fender-bender and one body shop quotes you $500 and another quotes you $1,000, you'll probably feel comfortable enough asking why. When it comes to medicine and health care, we don't have that same comfort. And though it may be too early to start jumping for joy, greater commoditization of health care is a terrific way to slow future cost growth and maybe, just maybe, have more educated patients.

Image source: http://conflicthealth.com/robo-medics/

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