Possible Projects


Health, not Healthcare
Alex Pentland and Frank Moss, MIT


Our healthcare system is in crisis. Many factors are to blame, but two stand out from the rest: increasing demand and a mindset based on treating disease rather than preventing it in the first place. Chronic ailments have increased dramatically in the last 20 years in our nation, and the percent of the GNP devoted to health care exceeds 16% (as compared to the 8% spent in many other countries). Yet entrenched political interests continue to block change to either the healthcare system or its payment model. Many people despair that sufficient political will exists to change this system, and that the result will be a collapse similar to the current banking crisis.
What can we do to avert this kind of collapse? The answer is that instead of focusing on the healthcare system, we should create a health system: a network of organizations and tools that helps people thrive, staying healthy and happy during their entire lives.

Because health is intimately intertwined with social support, adequate wealth, self-determination, and security, a successful health system must take a holistic view of life. Research into life-long health and happiness shows that it has two main components: well-being and life satisfaction. Well-being depends upon mental and physical health, support of family and community, and security. Life satisfaction depends upon self-determination in the economic, political, and political spheres, making progress towards your ideals, and the extent to which others share your ideals.
Well-being and life satisfaction must therefore be the twin objectives of this new health system. What are the components of such a system? First and foremost, it must be built around tools that help people understand their lives and helps them chose behaviors that lead to health and happiness. However a health system can not only be for the individual, because social connections and shared ideas are central to health and happiness. A successful health system must also help provide social support, and concentrate our collective knowledge about the connections between health and happiness on the one hand, and behaviors and outcomes on the other. It should help arm people with the knowledge and the support they need to face personal crises: for instance, to help you know when you should turn to the healthcare system, and to be successful in obtaining the help you need.
Where will the health system live? At home, mostly, with tune-ups and updates from consumer stores, but not in hospitals or clinics. Best Buy, CVS, and Wal-Mart will sell and service the tools that allow people to manage their health, and it will be paid for out-of-pocket, offset by discounts on healthcare insurance costs. It will be built from mobile phones with special sensing capabilities to record your daily and weekly patterns, smart bathrooms that keep track of new types of vital signs, smart exercise equipment that knows your personal patterns, and more…all provided by consumer electronics and similar industries.

To make such a health system work, there must be lots of new research. Not only must we better understand how to be healthy, but we must understand how to build devices that are both enjoyable to use and which support our health. The engineering challenges that must be solved in order to create such a system of supportive interfaces include:

  • Persuasive Technologies: how can we make better decisions and adopt more healthy behaviors?
  • Personal Sensing: how can we know more about how our bodies are maturing, the trajectory of our lives, and the evolution of our social environment?
  • Personal Collective Intelligence: how can we contribute toward and learn from the collective knowledge and experience of our peers?
  • Life Building: how can we assemble the right persuasive, sensing, and knowledge tools we need for our particular situation, and use them to build the life we desire?
  • Socially Aware Computation and Communication: how can we build systems that are aware of us as social beings, are helpful and appropriate, and perhaps even kind and thoughtful?

Perhaps the biggest barrier to health is that there is no research funding: we do not have a national research effort targeted at health. People assume that this is the job of the National Institutes of Health, but the NIH describes themselves as `the nations medical research agency', and their web link for `healthy living’ says only `see Disease Prevention.’ NIH funds healthcare, not health. Similarly health is outside the scope of the National Science Foundation, not the problem of DARPA, and so on and so on. In the US Government, nobody owns the problem of health.

We propose, therefore, that $1 Billion of the money currently being aimed at reforming the healthcare system be instead dedicated for health research and for SBIR support to build a consumer health system. By using this money to build a health system that supports lifelong health, we can make sure our healthcare system is used in the most efficient way, and it will replay the Social Security and Medicare systems many times over. And, even more importantly, we can help citizens of the United States of America achieve a far more healthy, happy, and even thriving lives.

Possible Projects