TEDxBrussels a couple of weeks ago. In the midst of exciting discussions about digital stuff, social networking, communities, collaboration and (inevitably!) innovation, Andrew Keen threw a bit of a spanner in the works, perhaps ensuring we didn’t all get sucked into a group think. He talked about the ‘cult of the individual’, digital narcissism, and the risks of us all becoming data. My read between his lines was that in an increasingly digitised world, we risk increased abstraction of the individual, alienation rather than increased connectedness. The following day there was a follow-up event, ‘TEDxBrussels meets the EU Commission’, to which they invited many of the speakers, Clara del Torre (Director, DG Research & Innovation), and others to further discuss the topics of TEDxBrussels through panel discussions and audience input. I was on a panel with Alan Greene and Jeroen Raes which started out as a discussion on e-health but, rather ambitiously thanks to chair Wim De Waele, ended up trying to ‘redefine health’. I believe health is about people (or Ambulatory Bacterial Colonies as Raes would have us imagine). Health is not about diseases, organs, treatments or new technology and tools. It is about people. Not patients, people. I heard an anecdote once of a man shuffled between specialists in a hospital and talked over – but never talked to – who finally cried in exasperation: ‘I am not a pancreas!’ As we talk excitedly about new technologies that are heralding in the the age of e-health it is important perhaps to heed Keen’s warning. When we become a patient, we have already begun to become abstracted. We may walk into a clinic as a person and leave as a disease, or at best an organ. The risk of new e-health technologies, which aim to increasingly turn a person into a composite of health data, is that the person who enters the health system becomes increasingly pixelated and indistinct. So as we stand on the ‘verge of the Century of Wisdom’, as Peter Droll (Head of Innovation Policy, DG for Research & Innovation) rather optimistically predicted, we should heed the words of the great Marshall McLuhan:
“We shape our tools, and afterwards our tools shape us”
If we can understand this principle as we develop new health apps, and incorporate the potential and desired behaviours into the design and implementation, then perhaps we will actually move from hype to hope.