Predictive medicine – or “precision health” as it is sometimes known – is a trend in healthcare that is growing exponentially. Perhaps the greatest indication to date that this is slated to be the future of disease prevention and patient care is a massive new investment by tech behemoth and king of the algorithm, Google.
However, in order to continue along the path toward true predictive modeling, there will need to be a group of people willing to be tracked and monitored to a never-before-seen degree. And herein also lies some concern about what the future will look like if all of our most intimate functions are logged and analyzed for inspection by the central computers of Google and the healthcare State.
People might not know, but Google is not only synonymous with online browsing and search engines; it has a health division called Verily. It is the result of an undertaking that began in 2014 as Google Life Sciences and has become one of the company’s most intricate and far-reaching endeavors. None more so than the specific mission to predict future illness. Verily’s bold mission has now been given a name: Project Baseline. Preliminary estimates put the price tag near $100 million.
The ramp-up in predictive medicine initiatives is demonstrable in everything from consumer wearable electronics with simple monitoring capabilities right up to smartphone apps that have been developed to connect doctors to patients with a history of depression.
While many people seem to be on board with employing technology as an elective measure to better their overall physical and mental fitness, one also should understand that it is the merger of healthcare and insurance where the slippery slope might be found.
As stated by the publication Managed Care in their article, “More Data in Health Care Will Enable Predictive Modeling Advances.”
Predictive modeling (PM) has grown to be a linchpin of care management. Health plans, integrated delivery systems, and other health care organizations (HCOs) increasingly channel their patients to interventions based in part on what they deduce from predictive models that have traditionally been run against databases of administrative claims. In this arena, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) [Obamacare] is likely to exert a profound effect.
…a growing number of health care experts, including the Care Continuum Alliance, see predictive modeling as an opportunity to prevent [disease] complications, control [hospital] readmissions, generate more precise diagnoses and treatments, predict risk, and control costs for a more diverse array of population segments than previously attempted.
[J.E. emphasis added]
In short, this is where the previously elective can become mandatory. It is also where Google is perfectly situated to be at the forefront of making this a reality. As the Project Baseline website confidently states:
We’ve Mapped The World.
Now Let’s Map Human Health.
Their project has enlisted Duke University School of Medicine and Stanford School of Medicine in their “quest to collect comprehensive health data and use it as a map and compass, pointing the way to disease prevention.” However, despite the huge financial investment offered to some of the best minds in establishment medicine, the missing component is the data set – that is, people.
According to MIT Technology Review, Verily projects a need for 10,000 American volunteers who will agree to submit to a battery of real-time testing over a period of 4 years that will include:
…x-rays and heart scans, in addition to having their genomes deciphered and their blood tested in so-called liquid biopsies … molecular testing, including the sequencing of participants’ DNA.
The study calls for collecting volunteers’ stool, saliva, and even tears.
Most day-to-day monitoring will be done via wrist watch, but volunteers’ homes also need to be retrofitted to accommodate additional testing including mattress sensors and a special router that will record sleep behavior and transmit the information to scientists.
It is a massive undertaking that is amplified by the fact that not all 10,000 people are expected to sign up at the same time, so the company anticipates at least a ten-year timeline for just the study to be completed. Moreover, there could be a level of non-cooperation or even full dropout over time:
“The question is why should people continue to give you data. You need a reason,” says Eric Hekler, a professor at Arizona State University who works with activity trackers. “People wear a wrist tracker for a few months, but even the burden of charging one will make them stop. There is a lot of hounding involved.”
MIT stated that they have not yet been given a consent form to review, but they do highlight some key issues that appear on the project’s website pre-application which have already plagued all areas of technology: namely, how secure is the information that is collected, and will it be shared or even sold to third parties. Some of what they found is not encouraging to privacy advocates:
A separate consent form, used for volunteers expressing interest through the website, says the study will operate via a company called Baseline Study LLC, and that Verily may sell volunteers’ data—for instance, to drug companies for their own research—with names, addresses, and phone numbers removed.
“You will not share in any revenues or profits, or receive any financial compensation,” the document notes.
Doctors involved say data collected from volunteers will remain closely held by Verily for two years, but after that the study design calls for making it available to other researchers. Mega says the final terms of the data release have not been agreed upon.
The good news for anyone alarmed by the direction that Google-directed healthcare could take is that we are clearly a decade or more from knowing how viable any of this will be for full integration into healthcare management. However, the warnings about Google’s intrusion into Internet activity – including surveillance, advertising manipulation, and censorship – was similarly warned about well in advance, and only now is it becoming common knowledge about how much Google collects and tracks our interests. The introduction of similar algorithms to target our physical being leaves us not a minute to waste if we wish to sound a warning about what will happen if Google succeeds with mapping human health.