10 Forecasts for the Future of Healthcare

World Future Society's special report on 20 Forecasts for the Next 25 YearsFORESIGHT may be the single most critical skill for the 21st Century. Knowledge quickly goes out of date, but foresight enables you to anticipate and navigate change, make good decisions, and take action to create a better future.

That’s why I’ve been a member of the Central Texas chapter of the World Future Society for years, where I meet interesting people with widely varied perspectives of the future. It’s also why I participate in so many Linkedin discussion groups on emerging healthcare issues.

The following ten forecasts came from the World Future Society’s special report, Forecasts for the Next 25 Years. It’s a promotional piece to attract new members who then get a subscription to The Futurist magazine.

Forecast #3. Nanotechnology offers hope for restoring eyesight.

Flower-shaped electrodes topped with photodiodes, implanted in blind patients’ eyes, may restore their sight. The “nanoflowers” mimic the geometry of neurons, making them a better medium than traditional computer chips for carrying photodiodes and transmitting the collected light signals to the brain.

Implications: Scientific research is increasingly cross-disciplinary, as computer and electronic researchers draw from the biological sciences to explore new solutions. The techniques described in this article might also be applied to restoring mobility to individuals who are paralyzed, or perhaps undo the effects of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.

Forecast #5. Learning will become more social and game-based

And online social gaming may soon replace textbooks in schools, as well as engage health consumers in managing wellness. The idea that students learn more when they are engaged — as they are when playing games — is helping educators embrace new technologies in the classroom. In addition to encouraging collaborations, games also allow students to learn from their mistakes through trial and error.

Implications: The “gamification” of education is a controversial approach that intends to leverage children’s sense of play and curiosity to promote engagement and exploration. Some critics question games’ utility in developing critical thinking skills.

Forecast #7. Machine vision will become available in the next 5 to 15 years

This technology will greatly enhance robotic systems’ capabilities, and visual range ultimately will exceed that of the human eye.

Implications: Enhanced robots and automated equipment of all varieties will become increasingly integrated into our environments — not just in factories, but also at home, in schools, and in shopping centers. Are you prepared for “ambient intelligence” — smart surroundings that see you or sense your presence and mood and then respond to you?

Forecast #10. The end of identity as we know it?

Worried about sharing your medical information online or engaging in health related conversations with strangers? It may become very easy to create a new identity (or many identities) for ourselves. All we will have to do is create new avatars in virtual reality. Those avatars will act on our behalf in real life to conduct such high-level tasks as performing intensive research, posting blog entries and Facebook updates, and managing businesses. The lines between ourselves and our virtual other selves will blur, to the point where most of us will, in essence, have multiple personalities.

Implications: We are already on our guard against people who aren’t who or what they say they are. Trust of others may also become more difficult to obtain, especially when it comes to protecting children from strangers, as suspicions may be aroused by the behavior of other people’s avatars.

Forecast #11. The U.S. rich–poor gap is a pending disaster — around 2020.

If the economic situation looks bad now, just wait until the end of the decade, warns former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert B. Reich in his book Aftershock. Present-day concentration of wealth in the hands of too few Americans, and the related problem of out-of-control consumer debt and healthcare spending, will lead to economic stagnation and political upheaval with impacts felt across the world.

Implications: Individuals can take control of their own consumer debt, as well as prepare themselves for uncertain futures by investing in training for new careers, for example. They can also lobby their representatives to enact policies that promote their interests, but as Reich points out, the complexity of these issues may lead many uninformed voters to vote against their own interests.

Forecast #13. The future is full of bicycles.

Bike use is increasing around the world, as evidenced by the creation of bike trails, rising popularity of bike tours, and more doctors encouraging their elderly patients to bike for exercise. In China, passing a physical fitness test is a prerequisite to buying a car.

Implications: Biking is seen as an easy, inexpensive solution to a large number of interrelated problems. As the world continues urbanizing, people’s health will increasingly suffer from environmental pollution and from sedentary lifestyles that do not allow for enough physical activity. Meanwhile, resource depletion will accelerate. Local transportation systems that encourage biking and walking could be a powerful antidote to these harmful trends.

Forecast #14. The Internet will automatically search itself so you don’t have to.

The information you provide Google when you search for something is teaching the search engine more about you and your interests. One day, Google will become so savvy about you that your smartphone will pick up information from your environment, anticipate what you’ll want to know, and deliver it automatically.

Implications: It is easy to imagine abuses of such technology by companies that could profit from having access to so much personal information, warn privacy advocates. But we should also beware of even more-onerous laws regulating this type of information-gathering technology.

Forecast #17. Robotic surgeons will use bioprinters to repair and replace your organs.

Several research centers are developing computerized instruments that will build living tissue layer by layer and implant it directly into human patients.

Implications: Robots are precise, tireless workers that will make surgical procedures less daunting, both for the human surgeons and for their patients. And bioprinting uses the patient’s own cells as a catalyst, so it will help alleviate demands for new organ donations and avoid the problem of organ or tissue rejection.

Forecast #18. Humans will eventually “lose” the race with robots.

Even with every technological enhancement available to them, future human beings will not be able to keep up with the evolutionary pace of robotic humanoids with artificial intelligence.

Implications:Unlike human beings, robots are unimpeded by biological limitations to their potential advancements. The best we can do is to learn from and make friends with our robotic competitors. According to futurist Ray Kurzweil: by 2013, a supercompu­ter will have the reasoning and processing capacity of the Human Brain; by 2023, a $1,000 home computer will have that power, and by 2037, a $0.01 embedded computer will. AND… by 2049, a $1,000 computer will have the power of the human RACE.

Forecast #20. Future human societies may be divided between augmented and nonaugmented breeds.

Those who can afford technological enhancements, including changes to their DNA, may become so significantly altered that they will no longer be able to breed with nonenhanced humans.

Implications: Would the augmented humans also begin to exploit the nonaugmented? And would the nonaugmented become resentful and revolt? Society may be headed for another period of segregation or apartheid if the nonaugmented and augmented breeds of humans feel threatened by each other — unless prejudice were to be bred out of everyone and altruism bred in.MiniTrends, by John Vanston, PhD

The inspiration for Modern Health Talk

These trends represent ripples of good ideas, but it’s the unnoticed intersection where some of the biggest opportunities lay. That’s the concept of MiniTrends, a book by John Vanston that I strongly endorse. I’ve known John for years and did consulting work for his company, Technology Futures. His book inspired the vision of Modern Health Talk, because it helped me see unfulfilled opportunity at the intersection of the trends shown below.

Trends Overlap: boomers, costs, telemedicine, sensors, wireless broadband, telepresence, mobile apps, and social media

THE CHART: Boomer demographics exacerbate rising healthcare costs, especially institutional care, driving the critical need for healthcare reform. Our extended recession places great political pressure on the ability to save $1 trillion per year by replacing long term institutional care with home healthcare for half of the patients. This can be done with home modifications for aging in place, combined with Wireless Broadband and cloud computing, mobile apps, telepresence, telemedicine, Digital sensors that monitor biomarkers and the environment, and other related technologies.

Modern Health Talk is positioned at the intersection of these trends and uses the web and social media to help people discover and learn about these new technologies.

Share Your Vision Below

Some of these are “far out.” What do you see as “near in” futures for healthcare? Reply with a comment, and let your imagination flow.

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