The next generation of public health won’t involve the medical world

I received my Masters in Public Health from Johns Hopkins in 2006. I took a course on transportation safety where we focused on designing roads for safety, making airlines safer, and decreasing the risk of medical helicopter crashes.

In 2007, I worked for Public Citizen, Ralph Nader’s consumer advocacy group. Ralph’s book, Unsafe at Any Speed, forced the automobile industry to focus on converting their cars from steel death traps to smart machines teeming with airbags, safety belts, and crumple zones. As a result, millions of lives have been saved all over the world and automobile companies now advertise and compete based on safety. And in just the last fifteen years, our highways have gotten much safer:

But what struck me most in my public health training was the deep codependent relationship public health has with the medical world. Understandably so, public health has traditionally been mostly about epidemiology, biostatistics, and medical services. In fact, the accepted definition of public health is:

the science and art of preventing disease, prolonging life and promoting health through the organized efforts and informed choices of society, organizations, public and private, communities and individuals.

But the next generation of public health won’t involve the medical world. We’re currently seeing large companies like Google enter the health space. Google Health believes that “better health comes from better information” and “you should have easy access to your own health information – anytime, anywhere.” While this is a worthy mission, Google is very much missing the mark. I’m not aware of any evidence that access to medical data or everyday wellness data changes long-term behaviors or a population’s health outcomes.

But Google is working on a much, much more important initiative that, if successful, could be one of the greatest contributions to public health the world has ever seen– data-driven, crash-proof “brains on wheels“– self-driving cars that aware of the road, of other cars, and of passengers. Imagine a world where the highways are as safe as the skies (45,000 planes take off and land every day in America).

This is Public Health 2.0– data-driven, technology-enabled, real world solutions that take an active risky everyday behavior and turn it into a passive, nearly error-proof experience. Public health innovation won’t come from your local woefully underfunded and understaffed public health department. Public health revolutions will come from tech companies that have almost zero connections to medical care.

Jay Parkinson is a pediatrician and preventive medicine specialist and founder of The Future Well. He blogs at his self-titled site, Jay Parkinson + MD + MPH.

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