WASHINGTON, DC — Two legendary technological and philanthropic innovators with decidedly different styles — Ted Turner and Bill Gates — spoke Tuesday to the 2010 mHealth Summit, the world’s biggest gathering of practitioners, researchers and advocates seeking to marry wireless technologies and health care. Both saw huge potential in mhealth but also agreed that technology does not trump all, and that it will be people, not technology, that determine if mhealth realizes its seemingly limitless potential.
In the morning, Ted Turner, introduced as “the greatest innovator in telecommunications in the world,” mused on the recent changes in technology in his usual unguarded, shoot-from-the-lips style. “Technology is so complex and moving so quickly in so many different areas, that’s it’s difficult to keep up with.” Because of that, he rarely watches more than a half hour of television a day and has given up pleasure reading, including novels. But he does read The Economist cover to cover.
Turner, the founder of both CNN and the UN Foundation, kept straying from mhealth to his latest cause – banning nuclear weapons from the world. And he found a way to tie the two issues together: “Bombing people is generally not good for their health.”
He thinks aircraft carriers are worthless to the U.S. military strategy and that the U.S. should sell them all. And since China wants aircraft carriers, the U.S. should sell them all to China and, since China is the main creditor of the U.S. government, use the money to pay off U.S. debt to China.
Always the entrepreneur, he recalled how he originally wanted to give a billion dollars to the UN to make up for what the U.S. government owed the UN at that time. But was told he could not do so. So he claimed to have considered buying the U.S. government debt of $1 billion for 80 cents on the dollar and then suing the U.S. government for the full amount, pocketing a $200 million profit before he had even started.
Turner is intensely optimistic about the future of mhealth. “Nothing is going to stop this from becoming a huge success.”
Bill Gates struck a more cerebral and pragmatic style. He was optimistic but expressed more caveats: “The cell phone is not a panacea for health care (Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Muhammad Yunus, who just joined the board of the mHealth Alliance, was earlier quoted as saying the best way to end poverty it to give someone a cell phone). But he did allow that cell phones, to date, have been useful on the research side, in terms of sharing and accessing data.
He thought that cell phones could have the biggest impact in the next few years if we every birth could be registered on cell phones and that information used to ensure that those children are vaccinated. This would result in “huge improvements” in child health. Other growing applications of mhealth that he sees are patient reminders, maternal and child information, supply chain for health products and online digital records.
But he cautioned that these technologies are very much dependent on local variables (the quality of health personnel and infrastructure, for example) and that “It will be easy to fool yourself into thinking that something that works in one place will work equally well in another.” He believes that the greatest mhealth innovation will come not in the poor countries and not in rich countries but in middle-income countries like Brazil, China and India.
I later talked to an mhealth expert from Columbia University who told me that that statement by Gates was the only thing he said which which she disagreed. She told me that innovation would take place in rich, poor and middle-income countries, but especially in poor countries where there was more urgency for mhealth innovations to increase access to healthcare.
Gates was asked what he sees as the next big thing in technology and health, and he gave a surprising answer — robots. He talked about robots doing c-sections and providing elder care. Robots could be programmed to lift and carry a patient.
“Humans are surprisingly good at this,” he said. “It’s a hard thing for a robot. But once a robot learns to do it, it doesn’t forget and can do it 24 hours a day.”