Big Brother tech might be America's last hope for health

Wearable monitors, big data, e-commerce technologies, and pro-health propaganda may fix U.S. health care

The United States spends more on health care per capita than any other nation, yet we have millions of people with no health care and poorer overall health than other industrialized countries. The most pampered generation, the Baby Boomers, may not live as long as their parents, and those who do will live sicker. Poor people of all races in the United States are seeing their life expectancies decline. The more we spend on Medicare, the sicker our population has become. And the shiny, new medical tech, procedures, and drugs we see in the news are too costly for all but the elites.

We waste $210 billion in unneeded care, $190 billion a year in excessive administration, $130 billion in overpriced care, and $75 billion in fraud. More than half of health care spending goes to cultural illnesses caused by obesity and sedentary lifestyles -- ailments that are entirely preventable. We spend too much and get too little, and we'll spend even more as we get less healthy as a nation.

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The answer to these woes may be a benevolent electronic Big Brother, a combination of monitoring technology and Amazon.com-like technology-based marketing. Or so several speakers in effect proposed at this week's Wireless Life Science Alliance conference, which brings together medical and technology providers and whose speakers shared those scary stats.

Frankly, I'm not sure which is worse: the disease or the cure. The idea of being constantly monitored deeply bothers me. (That's the odious business propelling Google and Facebook.) The same goes for the idea of being manipulated constantly by electronic feedback systems trying to change my own behavior, albeit in a quiet and friendly manner. (That's the Amazon approach to getting you to buy more and more often.)

But it's also clear what we're doing today isn't working, as the above stats show. Maybe we need to be more European, more Chinese, more Singaporean and give government (or perhaps, in our anti-government culture, corporations) the power to monitor and manipulate us for our own good.

Retraining people's attitudes on health

Robert McCray, CEO of the Wireless Life Science Alliance, says we need a change in culture away from health care to simply health -- that is, being healthy. As long as the focus is on care, people will not act to stay healthy, expecting instead their doctors to fix their self-induced ailments. We just can't afford it, he says.

We need a consumer movement, McCray says: "Healthy people have more fun." He cites several successful movements that have increase quality of life, such as the demonization of drinking and driving in the 1980s, the de-cool-ification of smoking by the entertainment and media industries in the 1990s, the safety campaigns in the 1970s to train people to wear seatbelts and government and insurance efforts to make airbags affordable standard equipment in cars at all price levels, and the broad government and business effort to train people to think about energy as a "how to use less" perspective (the MPG mentality) instead of a "where do we get more" mentality (the "drill, baby, drill!" thinking that hasn't entirely gone away). You could argue the various equality movements followed a similar trajectory since the 1960s, with the "liberal media" and various governments teaming up.

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