Sunday, January 15, 2012

Supernovas and the power of digital health information

                                  A Young Supernova in the Pinwheel Galaxy (arrow)
                                             from Astronomy Picture of the Day

Knowledge is power, for sure, but how much power? According to David Deutsch, more powerful than an exploding star:

"The sun, from even a hundredth of a lightyear away, looks like a cold, bright dot in the sky. It doesn't affect anything. At a thousand lightyears, neither does a supernova.... There is only one known phenomenon which, if it ever occurred, would have effects that did not fall off with distance, and that is the creation of a certain type of knowledge...."

In "The Beginning of Infinity" Deutsch illustrates how, even at astronomical distances, a knowledge transmission to a competent receiver can be utterly transformative. (Marooned on an alien planet, the sun a mere speck in the sky, imagine receiving instructions for repairing your spaceship).

Let's think for a moment improving healthcare. Let's think about the physical resources: new clinics, medicines, devices, personnel, etc. Let's think about applying them where they're needed most: inner cities, communities of the working poor, rural communities. Sure we need them, but like our supernova, the impact of these physical resources "falls off with distance."

Since the transformative power of health knowledge persists with distance, then perhaps we can get a better bang for our healthcare buck by improving information channels: sophisticated EMR, mobile health apps, personal health records, tablets and smartphones for all. (I've written about the special virtues of medicine "going digital" here.)

Our hospital is currently changing its EMR, and there is understandably a lot of grumbling about lost productivity. Perhaps Deutsch's perspective can hearten those who are otherwise skeptical about continually adopting new digital technologies if we frame these knowledge channels as power channels.