Q&A: What will the future of healthcare look like?

Q: If you could look into the future, what would you say the future of healthcare looks like?

A: The future of healthcare is that it will become integrated into every aspect of life. It will no longer be a separate system as it is today. Today, healthcare is centered on disease, so healthcare comes into the picture only when we're sick. That's what most of the research and practice is about - disease. Even preventive care is about preventing disease. That will change as we learn more about wellbeing. We will recognize that wellbeing cannot be separate from our daily life and healthcare will change in accordance with that recognition.

Q: What does that look like on a practical level?

A: Healthcare will move out of hospitals and clinics and into your home, or wherever you are. In other words, it will be about self-care and well-care, which is at the heart of wellbeing. Each person will know herself or himself better. Each person will become sensitive to when their system is going astray, and will know what measures to take to start rectifying the problem, even if they can't give it a formal diagnosis. The more traditional elements of healthcare will still be there, like emergency departments and clinics, but these will be complementary services that based on a model of wellbeing.

Q: How will people gain this knowledge about themselves? How will they know when their wellbeing is going astray?

A: It is already happening today in the wellness movement. Ten years ago many people may not have even heard the word wellness. Now, you can't escape it. It has become so popular that almost anything can be labeled wellness these days for the purposes of marketing. But the core of wellness is self-care - the idea that I can know myself, learn more about myself, and care for myself. That doesn't mean we don't listen, don't follow others' advice, and don't take help from others, but rather that we accept responsibility for our own wellbeing. When that happens, we begin to explore ourselves and gain direct knowledge about what works and what doesn't.

Q: What about new developments in technology? How will they contribute?

A: One of the biggest applications of technology will be in the field of wellbeing. After all, isn't experiencing wellbeing the ultimate goal of technology? Technology is already disrupting healthcare in massive ways. The plethora of sensing and recording devices we have now can effectively replicate a hospital room in your home, without all the clunky machinery. 

The next step is that technology will go from dealing in strictly objective measurements (measuring your weight, heart rate, and blood pressure) to interfacing with subjective experiences. The first wave of that includes the biofeedback devices and meditation apps that we are seeing now. They function to redirect your awareness back to your own subjective experience, as opposed to external measurements. This again is one of the ways people will learn more about themselves and start managing their own wellbeing.

Q: How soon do you see these changes happening?

A: They are already happening. Hospitals and clinics have already started integrating some of this technology. And biofeedback and meditation apps are very popular.

Q: So healthcare's future is techno-centric?

A: No, it's human-centric. Technology is a powerful bridge from where we are to where we will be. It gives us exposure to experiences that we would not have access to otherwise. But it's up to us to choose which experiences we want to move toward. Technology is neutral in that sense - inherently neither good nor bad. The way we apply it makes all the difference.

If you want to say that the future is techno-centric, then we must acknowledge the amazing technology that is built into the human being. We take our processes of breathing and digesting for granted, but they are technological marvels.

Q: Will we recognize that more in the future?

A: Absolutely. That's what everything is pointing toward. The more we turn the lens of medical science on our own experience as opposed to an externalized disease, the more we will learn about the human being - about you and me. That's what the most popular movements in medicine are about: wellness, narrative medicine, patient-centered care, integrative medicine, and so on. They take different approaches but ultimately they all highly value subjective experience. These movements are still in their relative infancy. As they progress, they will dive deeper into subjective experience and make new discoveries.

Q: Why isn't subjective experience valued more in healthcare today?

A: It's important to recognize that people in healthcare do value it. Doctors  and nurses, for example, value the experiences their patients are having. The problem is that healthcare doesn't know how to process those experiences into a meaningful system of care. And that's because those experiences haven't been researched enough.

Q: Why not?

A: Because it's an entirely new model of research. The researcher of the future will not only research externally through microscopes, but also internally through her own mind. She will learn to correlate the experiences that she is subjectively having with objective findings. In other words, she will begin to to map out the entirety of the experience of being well or ill, not just the objective measurements.

Q: What will the benefit of that be? Why map out those experiences?

A: Because then we will see that we can influence objective processes through subjective processes. Today, this is known as mind-body medicine.

Q: Can you give me an example?

A: A simple example is that meditation can help to lower blood pressure and decrease anxiety. But that in itself is a simplistic answer. The real answers are deeper: How does a change in awareness physically change your blood vessels? What are the steps involved? What links awareness and physical activity? When we start to answer these questions, our insight into wellbeing and power to influence it will grow.

Q: What about the big diseases like cancer, heart disease, and autoimmune disease? Can we manage those better?

A: If we can map out the entire experience of illness and wellbeing as I suggested before, then we access an entirely new way of approaching disease that is a natural complement to the current allopathic model. That's what integrative medicine is about in a way. It looks at the clinical situation in its entirety and applies whichever healing system(s) might work best, instead of looking at a disease or patient in just one way. We can engage the disease and the person at many levels. There's every reason to think that will be able to manage even the most severe disease better. We may even be able to cure conditions we didn't think were possible.

Q: So systematizing subjective experience, technology, and integrative care is the future of healthcare?

A: Yes. You summed it up well.

Q: How does your your new framework for wellbeing fit into the future of healthcare?

A: I call this new framework The Three Bodies. The Three Bodies give us a map of the whole human being - not just the physical, objective measurements, but the subjective experiences. Using the model of The Three Bodies, we can approach wellbeing through the physical body, mental body, and energetic body. Currently, healthcare works primarily through the physical body. It's 1/3 as effective as it could be. If we explored the other two bodies, we'd be doing things that are thought to be impossible.

The Three Bodies also gives us a common anchor from which to explore the commonalities and differences among healing systems across the world. Today, it's difficult to accurately combine surgery, meditation, chemotherapy, acupuncture, and reiki into a common model, because each uses a unique system of anatomy. Surgery uses physical anatomy. Meditation starts with mental anatomy. Acupuncture uses energetic anatomy. And so on. We need to first establish the complete anatomy of the human being as an anchor, from which every healing system can be explored. This will allow us to collaborate across cultures, learn new information, heal more quickly, and more effectively establish wellbeing as our baseline.

Anoop Kumar, MD, MM is a practicing emergency physician in the Washington, DC metro area. He is the creator of the online course The Three Bodies: A meditative journey to wellbeing and author of the upcoming book Michelangelo's Medicine: How redefining the human body will transform health and health care.