In 2016, a group of leaders from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) compiled a report “Convergence: The Future of Health”, which outlines the importance of convergence in the health care sector. Following are three broad questions and answers that can help professionals within the sciences, as well as the general public, to understand the definition of Convergence in Healthcare, its possibilities, the challenges it needs to overcome and what is needed to make it a reality.
What does “Convergence in Healthcare” mean?
To best define Convergence in Healthcare, first consider the broad definition of convergence in the digital age. In its overarching context, “convergence” refers to the merging of separate entities to create a single, larger cohesive unit. In the specific context of health care, convergence is the act of integrating life science experts and the technology that they use with professionals from other scientific fields, including mathematics, computational science, physical science and engineering. Convergence in Healthcare means that experts in these fields apply their industry-specific knowledge to overcome particular types of challenges. However, the concept is distinguishable from such interdisciplinary collaboration in one simple yet important way.
The aspect that separates convergence from collaboration is that it seeks to create one functional entity from its collective parts or — in the case of health care — from a collection of scientific disciplines. Convergence in Healthcare does not simply ask that people within these fields work together across interdisciplinary lines to solve problems, but instead requires that professionals from different disciplines restructure the way they think about how to pursue science as a whole. In doing so, scientists of all backgrounds have an opportunity to shape the future of health care by changing the way that innovation in the life sciences is pursued, which experts believe can advance health care far beyond its current state.
What is the potential impact of Convergence in Healthcare?
The true potential of Convergence in Healthcare is impossible to measure, as its purpose is to drive innovation and shape the future of the industry. However, we can examine the impact that convergence is already having on the life sciences as an indicator of the kinds of discoveries and solutions to come.
For example, in recent years teams of biochemists, engineers and scientists within the medical field have worked together to develop a method through which nanoparticles can be programmed to deliver drugs and medical therapies to specific cells in the human body. This nanotechnology could enable the creation of cancer treatments in which the cancer cells themselves are specifically targeted and killed, presenting patients with an alternative to current treatments that have an abundance of harmful side effects. Another innovation in the medical community that resulted from convergence is the development of health IT by technology firms. Patients’ use of smart devices allows the medical professionals who treat them to gain a more comprehensive picture of each patient’s health through the collection of physiological data, ultimately leading to a more personal degree of care.
Professionals working within the life sciences sector are also considering the apparent ways in which Convergence in Healthcare should be applied to various medical challenges in the future. As a single example, the medical community knows little about the brain compared to the other major organs in the body, and illnesses of the brain are prevalent across people of all demographics. Individuals of any age, race, gender and nationality may live with illnesses such as depression and schizophrenia, while debilitating diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease continue to affect elderly populations around the world. While convergence has the potential to help the life sciences community develop new ways to treat brain disorders, doing so requires assistance in areas related to the creation of new, non-invasive therapies and the design of new diagnostic tests that go beyond what currently exists. There are strides to be made in areas such as the engineering of nanotechnology. The community also needs support in the development of new tools for reviewing and quantifying human behavior to better diagnose patients and effectively modify their behavior. Further still, the life sciences community could benefit from the creation of new methods to explore connections between the brain and other major organs.
Finding solutions to these challenges and others like them requires that the medical community rely on groups such as IT specialists who can work to create better sensor-based technologies, and electrical engineering experts who may lend medical researchers new perspectives as they attempt to understand the connections between the neural circuits of the brain. These examples are a small and specific subset of the power that a cohesive unit of professionals brought together through convergence could have on the way we treat illness in the future.
What challenges does convergence face and what can be done to accelerate it?
In spite of the positive impact it has already had, Convergence in Healthcare is up against wide-ranging challenges from all sides that include the need for compliance with regulations and workforce requirements imposed upon the American biomedical sector. In addition, it faces an educational system that is not equipped to train students for careers in convergence fields. Adding to these problems is the fact that government funding for research in the biomedical sector is supplied at a rate even lower than it was 15 years ago, and many grant-funding panels are not structured in a way that makes the viability of convergence-based research apparent to all. While a desire to promote convergence exists among many professionals in the sciences, these obstacles and many others stand in the way.
In a broad sense, experts from MIT posit that the most significant action to be taken in the interest of accelerating Convergence in Healthcare is a boost in funding to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which is responsible for more monetary support to biomedical research than any other U.S. institution, at $32 billion in investments annually. The panel at MIT suggests that a strong budget boost to the NIH is needed from the U.S. government to drive convergence. In turn, the NIH must commit to providing funding specifically for convergence research alongside other existing forms of research. This would prevent convergence-based initiatives from having to compete with more straightforward, traditional projects that are easier for the medical community to understand and open up the life sciences to greater integration.