Does your model for future health-care spending account for driverless cars?

Stephen Wolfram has spent decades collecting data on every e-mail he’s sent, every phone call he’s received, every keystroke he’s made. But until now, he hadn’t sat down to analyze the resulting mountain of data. His conclusion after running the numbers on, well, himself:

As personal analytics develops, it’s going to give us a whole new dimension to experiencing our lives. At first it all may seem quite nerdy (and certainly as I glance back at this blog post there’s a risk of that). But it won’t be long before it’s clear how incredibly useful it all is—and everyone will be doing it, and wondering how they could have ever gotten by before. And wishing they had started sooner, and hadn’t “lost” their earlier years.

I would modify this slightly: I don’t think that everyone will be collecting micro-level data on their lives and lifestyles. I think everyone will be having micro-level data on their lives and lifestyles collected for them.

On Friday, at MIT, I spoke with a researcher who’s working on wearable diagnostic devices. The sorts of things you can clip onto your ear, or wear on your wrist, and stream data on your pulse, blood pressure, blood oxygenation, etc, into your phone, which can then send the information to a central server for analysis. The Jawbone Up and the Nike+ Fueland and the FitBit Ultra are all very early examples of these kinds of products.

”What’s the chance that, in 25 years, I and everyone I know will be wearing something that’s constantly feeding an enormous stream of physical data to some cloud-like server farm for constant analysis?” I asked him.

“99 percent,” he replied. “And the 1 percent is that the Earth gets hit by an asteroid before then.”

I think he’s probably right. And that’s one reason to be skeptical of the charts that extrapolate current trends in the health-care system out to 2080 — charts, to be sure, that I post all the time. We have no idea what health care is going to look like in 2030, much less 2080. We don’t even know what kind of health care we’ll need.

Earlier in the week, I wrote about the possibility that a $1,000 genomic test could radically disrupt the health-care industry. But here’s another thought experiment someone offered yesterday: Advances in information processing mean driverless cars are coming, and fast. If you live in the Bay Area, actually, they’re already here. Let’s say — and I don’t know if this is optimistic or pessimistic — that full adoption of driverless cars could cut the number of accidents in half.

In 2010, more than 32,000 Americans were killed in car accidents, more than 2 million were injured, and the resulting medical costs and productivity losses were, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in the $100 billion range. Car accidents are the leading cause of death for Americans between the ages of one and 30.

If we could halve all that, it would be, in the first case, an enormous win for human welfare and in the second case, a huge change in the composition of medical expenditures, with far less trauma care but hundreds of thousands of people living long and expensive lives (which would be, I hasten to emphasize, a very good thing). But it’s not something any of our current models around future medical spending can pick up.

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