From Rice Fields to Big Data
By Ping Zhang
My journey into technology was a long road. The first 15 years of my life were spent in the Hunan province in rural southern China. My family had no running water, and more often than not, we went to bed hungry.
At five, I started working with my father in the rice paddies. I planted rice seeds while my father manually built rice rows and dug irrigation canals. Everything was done by hand. It wasn’t until I was 11 that I saw my first technological advancement — a tractor — on my way to school.
At age 15, I rode on a train for the first time on my way to college. It was only then that I realized the promise of technology and how it could save my father’s back and hands from the brutal years of manual labor.
My passion for mathematics helped me earn my bachelor’s degree at 19 in China. After the 1989 events in Tiananmen Square, I decided to try to migrate to the United States. In 1990, I landed in Fayetteville, Arkansas with only my bags and a hundred American dollars to pursue my PhD at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. My wife followed soon after.
Eighteen months after moving to the US, I had my first experience with the American healthcare system. Early one Friday evening in 1992, my wife suddenly felt a sharp pain in her stomach. We rushed to the emergency room. We waited and waited – and waited some more. Three hours later, she was finally seen by an OB/GYN doctor.
It turned out that she had an ectopic pregnancy. She had been pregnant, but the fertilized egg had become lodged in one of her Fallopian tubes. Two liters of blood had accumulated as she waited for treatment. She had come close to losing her life.
The next day, the doctor cleared her for discharge with a clean bill of health, leaving us with a bill of a few thousand dollars. One of her Fallopian tubes had been torn open and the other had become so clogged with lost blood that it would likely permanently block any egg. We were told the chances of her ever having a child were slim.
The experience was shocking, scary, and life altering. Thankfully, after years of infertility treatments, she was able to give birth to two beautiful boys.
That horrible experience was over 20 years ago, but I still remember it like it was yesterday. Part of the reason is that I have spent many of those past 20 years working within the healthcare system to change it myself. I want to share three key lessons I have learned over this long journey.
The quality of healthcare is too low
The state of service in American healthcare is far below where it needs to be and where it could be, especially with its skyrocketing costs. But what if our healthcare system operated under a free competition model, much like the retail industry? No department store would ever have its customers regularly wait for hours in line to buy its products – because no one would go to that store any more (and they would book it in the other direction with haste).
Under a similar system for healthcare, providers would have to work much harder and more effectively to attract and adequately serve consumers. Open competition would lead to greater efficiency, lower cost, better quality of service, and more choices for consumers.
More innovation and disruption
Innovation and disruption must be encouraged. Over the past two decades, I learned about the underlying principles of world-class innovation from Silicon Valley. I had mentors who constantly encouraged me to break out of the box, experiment, and try something new and different. Healthcare is clearly not where it should be. We must find a better solution for something as vital to societal and individual wellbeing. Healthcare still needs a Steve Jobs and Apple-like innovation revolution to make it more clinically effective for the consumer and cost effective for all.
For example, what would healthcare look like if we could receive updates and monitor our health through a Fitbit device or health app the same way we receive ESPN notifications on an iPhone today? What if technology motivated us to pay the same amount of attention to our health as we do with our social media networks, and with the same ease? These are the simple concepts that will help us all live longer and save hundreds of lives.
Top-down is not enough; consumers need to become more invested
Consumers themselves must do more to control their own outcomes. As an immigrant to the US, I knew that I had to work much harder than my peers to succeed. Consumers today should adopt a similar drive and approach to their health. Rather than waiting for doctors to treat and prescribe “fixer” medications, we need to work more diligently to lead healthier, more proactive lifestyles – and we have the information and technology to do so at our fingertips.
What was once monopolized by professionals with years of training (and extremely costly) is now available at the nearest Best Buy or app store for just a couple of hundred dollars — or nothing at all. Look to wearable biometric devices as an example; those gadgets can accurately monitor an individual’s health, diagnose risky behaviors based on behavioral research from big data findings, and provide information on how to live a healthier, lower-risk life.
I am thrilled that my sons get to reap the benefits of a wonderfully innovative country that is slowly, but surely, transforming its healthcare system for the better. Sooner rather than later, as my boys grow into husbands and fathers, we will move past the times when emergency care is almost as painful as the medical ailment that necessitates the visit. And if we don’t, we’re doing something very wrong.
Ping Zhang, PhD is SVP of product innovation and chief technology officer of MedeAnalytics of Emeryville, CA.