Why This Is the End of the Beginning for Medtech Innovation

The 30th anniversary of MPMN happens to roughly correspond to the three-decade information and telecommunications revolution said to begin around 1985, according to one interpretation of long wave theory.

Brian Buntz

Popularized by the Russian economist Nikolai Kondratiev, long wave theory holds that decades of economic progress follow from technological breakthroughs such as was the case with the development of the steam engine, the railway, electrical and chemical engineering, automobiles, and computing technology.

In the most recent period, the microprocessor is the single most important technology, making possible everything from personal computers and smartphones, to smart bionic limbs and wireless-enabled medical devices. Indeed, much of our very culture now seems to revolve around the microprocessor.

Perhaps another technology will emerge as a key driver of medical technology in years to come. And medicine could be one of the principal industries to benefit from the next decades-long technological period, which we could be on the cusp of entering now. The Slovak theorist Daniel Smihula refers to the next decades-long phase as the post-informational technological revolution, and expects it to begin between 2015 and 2020.

A 2010 Allianz report also forecasted a wave of medical technology innovation playing a central role in the next long-term technological phase, arguing that such periods typically emerge after major financial crashes or periods of economic stagnation, and that the Great Recession may be one such example of that. Kondratiev himself believed in a long-term boom-bust cycle, asserting that the Great Depression would not spell the end of capitalism but give rise to a new period of economic success in the West. Stalin apparently disagreed and had the theorist shot by a firing squad.  

Whether long-wave theorists are right about the early 21stcentury giving rise to another technological megacycle, there is a definite need for a new wave of innovation in healthcare--in part because the world's graying population. By 2050, the population percentage in the United States that is over 65 stands to roughly double--and nearly triple in Asia and Latin America. Add to that growing pressures to contain healthcare costs and an uptick in chronic diseases, and we've got a big problem on your hands.

If Kondratiev's grand vision is true, there is a good chance that much of the prognosticating about the future of medical technology will seem myopic by comparison. For one thing, a lot of projections about healthcare's future are based on applications of electronics. And while electronics will undoubtedly play an integral in an ever-widening number of medical technologies, long-wave theory holds that one technology revolution lays the groundwork for the next. So it is possible that the innovation made possible by electronics could give rise to other technological fields that would characterize the next era. Contenders could include fields like nanotechnology, genomics, biotechnology, or 3-D printing, any of which may ultimately catalyze a wave of long-term medical innovation.

Such a shift may be already underway. The Economist just penned an article stating that the U.S. healthcare system is a "wasteful and inefficient industry, is in the throes of great disruption." Similar upheaval can be seen elsewhere.

Perhaps revolution is a good word to describe the next period of technological evolution in medicine. While there is clearly a need for novel devices that make healthcare more precise and efficient, any new technology that threatens entrenched medical business models must battle against those who would preserve the status quo. 

Refresh your medical device industry knowledge at BIOMEDevice Boston, May 6-7, 2015.

Brian Buntz is the editor-in-chief of MPMN and Qmed. Follow him on Twitter at @brian_buntz.

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