A leading scientist once claimed that, with the relevant data and a large enough computer, he could “compute the organism” – meaning completely describe its anatomy, physiology, and behavior. Another legendary researcher asserted that, following capture of the relevant data, “we will know what it is to be human.” The breathless excitement of Sydney Brenner and Walter Gilbert —voiced more than a decade ago and captured by the skeptical Harvard geneticist Richard Lewontin – was sparked by the sequencing of the human genome. Its echoes can be heard in the bold promises made for digital health today.
The human genome project, while an extraordinary technological accomplishment, has not translated easily into improved medicine nor unleashed a torrent of new cures. Perhaps the most successful “genomics” company, Millennium Pharmaceuticals, achieved lasting success not by virtue of the molecular cures they organically discovered, but by the more traditional pipeline they shrewdly acquired (notably via the purchase of LeukoSite, which ultimately yielded Campath and Velcade).
The enduring lesson of the genomics frenzy was succinctly captured by Brown and Goldstein, when they observed, “a gene sequence is not a drug.”
Flash forward to today: technologists, investors, providers, and policy makers all exalt the potential of digital health . Like genomics, the big idea – or leap of faith — is that through the more complete collection and analysis of data, we’ll be able to essentially “compute” healthcare – to the point, some envision, where computers will become the care providers, and doctors will at best be customer service personnel, like the attendants at PepBoys, interfacing with libraries of software driven algorithms.
A measure of humility is in order. Just as a gene sequence is not a drug, information is not a cure. Getting there will take patience, persistence, money and aligned interests. The most successful innovators in digital health will see the promise of the technology, but also accept, embrace, and ideally leverage the ambiguity of disease, the variability of patients, and the complexities of clinical care.