Shannon Boldon

Shannon Boldon

Software is eating the world… except in medicine

30 November 2017

graphic of a phone with a doctor and messages on screen

We are living in a golden age of technological invention, so why are healthcare systems seemingly reluctant to get on board with innovative software?

A week after attending the Economist War on Cancer event, I am still thinking about the discussions from the Digital Health & Cancer Care panel.

Data and technology have transformed the way we do things in many industries. From Uber to Ocado to Airbnb, there are so many examples of radical game-changers for consumers. The words of Andaman7 CEO Vincent Keunen have not rung truer: ‘Software is eating the world – except in medicine.’

Innovative software in healthcare

But why is medicine not catching up? It is not for a lack of interesting, game-changing technology in healthcare, that’s for sure:

  • Babylon Health offers a service allowing people to book a GP appointment or have a video or phone consultation with a doctor 24/7, through a smartphone app.
  • IBM Watson Health’s artificial intelligence (AI) technology has shown 90% concordance with tumour board recommendations on breast cancer. Watson, used for early detection of melanoma, has been shown to give a 95% level of accuracy (compared with that achieved by dermatologists) in initial studies of detecting dangerous skin lesions.
  • Smartphone app Natural Cycles provides women with a certified contraceptive method that is non-hormonal and non-intrusive.

Despite these innovations, healthcare systems and practitioners seem reluctant to embrace the potential of new technologies.

Resisting change

Perhaps the reason for this is a fear of change, or ingrained professional attitudes that are resistant to a transfer of power. Or perhaps it’s a more extreme fear: that robots might, one day, replace doctors.

Among the speakers on the digital health panel at the War on Cancer event was Dusty Majumdar of IBM Watson Health, whose artificial intelligence sequencing technology has allowed doctors to sequence glioblastomas (a rare and aggressive form of brain tumour) in ten minutes, rather than seven days. Majumdar pointed out that fear of automation is misplaced, saying: ‘It is not a matter of machines replacing doctors: it is more that radiologists who use artificial intelligence will replace radiologists who do not use artificial intelligence.’

Meanwhile Neil Bacon, founder of patient feedback website iWantGreatCare, eloquently summarised his take on digital health: ‘These new technologies have side effects, like all drugs ever. But we must find them, and mitigate them. Do not let perfect be the enemy of good.’

Regardless of individual opinions, it is only a matter of time before technology will change the way we deliver, and engage with healthcare. For better or for worse – and my guess is the former.


The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of The Health Policy Partnership.