LAS VEGAS In a panel session on medical electronics Thursday morning (Jan. 8th) at the Consumer Electronics Show here, Howard Jay Chizeck, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Washington, posed -- as one futuristic possibility in medicine -- a scenario in which one doctor simultaneously directs robots doing several routine surgical procedures on different patients, without even washing his hands between operations.
These and other medical advances are within reach, according to the members of a panel called "Your Robot Will See You Now," except for one overshadowing issue: who pays and how.
Subtly, but repeatedly, panel members lamented the fact that technology holds amazing potential for gathering complex information from patients and applying it to prevention and treatment, but that the U.S. health care system inhibits or prohibits many of these available innovations.
Among the most prominent obstacles to technology-enhanced care is the absence of a unified medical records system that could follow a patient all over the world, at the touch of a keystroke.
Many IT advancements are hindered, moreover, by issues of liability. It's possible today, said panelist Dr. Marshall Stanton, Medtronic's vice-president for clinical research, that a physician could read remotely a patient's blood pressure or heart rate from a device implanted in the patient's body.
However, the physician has no way to collect payment from an insurance company if he makes direct contact with the patient's heart. Moreover, if he makes a mistaken diagnosis based on that reading, he faces unexplored issues of malpractice liability.
Implantable electronic monitoring devices, with a current installed base of 5.5 to 6 million patients, are used far less effectively than they could be, because the health care system has no way to accommodate their speed, variety and functionality.
The panelists, however, were notably cautious in suggesting any changes in -- or even finding fault with -- the health care system, apparently preferring to wait and see what the future might bring politically.
Technologically, they were more sanguine toward the future.
Rajiv Mehta, CEO of Zume Life, went so far as to suggest that a health care system is superfluous to most patients' needs, if they can avail themselves of an array of technical and common-sense "self-care" options that involve personal monitoring of controllable factors like diet, exercise, medication, bio-metrics, anxiety, mood, pain, sleep and other personal health data.
"Humans have a great deal of sensitivity of their own," he said. "A lot of problems go away when the health care system is not a factor."