Friday, November 30, 2012

A Stethoscope for the Superorganism

Author: Ethan Segal, MD

"You look like a supernerd, made out of many lesser nerds," -Triumph, the insult comic dog

In the medical field, we focus on the care of the individual, a product of genetics, environment, and physiology. Recently, a lot of interest is coming from sociological circles investigating the role social structures play in the health of individuals, the social determinants of health. Scientists are finding more clues about the role social networks play in effecting individual health. For example, Kristakis and Fowler have found that rises of obesity can occur in social networks and social networks can be used to predict the spread of influenza (1). Similarly, many societies that have the healthiest people with longevity also have the strongest social ties. These ties foster interdependence as opposed to individual welfare or survival of the fittest. They are often referred to as "a society of us" instead of "a society of me's." Many sociological studies point to the symbiotic relationships of fungi. Mycotic organisms often form "superorganisms," networks of many individuals that symbiotically help scavenge for food or warn when dangerous pathogens are in the area. If society plays a large role in the welfare of individuals, should the healthcare community treat a human superorganism? The problem is that the healthcare community never really had a tool to measure the health of the superorganism. Until just recently.

Welcome to the era of Health Information Exchanges, recently being pushed by health policy changes as a part of the HITECH Act and ACA. HIE's for short, are technologies that connect disparate health information systems and combine to form a superstructure of many different care centers. HIE's are being formed in regions of the country and throughout the nation. There is a national collaborative as well as NGOs and private entities creating a network of health information databases. The major advantages are that medical records become interoperable. No matter where you choose to get care, a provider can access your health data and your records always travel with you. The major promise being proposed by Health IT stakeholders is that HIE's will improve patient care in several ways. If providers can share and exchange data, the number of unnecessary testing will decrease. Providers can gather information more efficiently leading to more effective clinical decision making. Also, patient care will become more integrated and will lead to reduction to hospital readmissions from better transitions of care and outpatient follow up. However, HIE's can serve in way few have mentioned.

HIE's can be the stethoscope of our human superorganism. In real-time, the HIE network can be programmed to give data on social networks and disease as it spreads throughout the community. Instead of using physical sensors, one can track the health of the entire population using this new technology. Many people have said that social networking technology doesn't change our networks because they don't change human nature. Human nature, our brains, our behavior, our psychology stays constant, so social technology doesn't change our social structures.

However, human beings are tool builders. Since the first humans (and other primates), we have created technologies to amplify our latent abilities. Steve Jobs said, "computers are like bicycles for the mind." Computers have revolutionized the way we work and amplified our cognitive capabilities. I believe HIE's can be seen as a stethoscope for the human superorganism and can revolutionize the way we provide healthcare.

About the Author:

Ethan Segal, MD, is a freelance medical writer who specializes in creating copy for clients and companies in the medical technology sector. In addition to his medical training in neurology, he is a published author in peer-reviewed research journals and has worked for several years as a freelance medical writer. You can find out more about Dr. Segal on his blog:

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