The technological impact Star Trek has had on our society can hardly be overstated. Inventors inspired by Gene Roddenberry’s vision were responsible for giving us such marvels as automatic sliding doors, flip phones and even tablet computers. Now, another classic from the show has become reality, the medical tricorder, a handheld device capable of registering vital signs and offering diagnoses merely by passing it over a patient’s body.
The technical hurdles that had to be overcome to create such a device are impressive enough, but perhaps even more mind-blowing are the implications for the future of medicine. By placing state of the art diagnostics in the palm of a consumer’s hand, the new tricorder technology has the potential to correct, at least partially, one of the greatest examples of information asymmetry in the market, the relationship between doctor and patient.
Ever since medicine became a profession, doctors have had, or at least claimed, the advantage of a vast amount of specialized knowledge about the incredibly complex system that is the human body. This is a problem for consumers because it is often difficult to verify whether the services rendered have been effective, rather than useless or even destructive. If you go to the doctor for a routine checkup and he says you need to start taking an expensive medicine to avert a potential health issue, you as the patient have no way of knowing whether the medicine is working, or even whether the doctor was telling the truth in the first place.
This information asymmetry has always been one of the strongest arguments by proponents of medical licensure and the extensive training requirements physicians must undergo, and has presented one of the most difficult challenges to the classical economics assumption of perfect information. But advances in technology always seem to strengthen the case for liberty, and the field of medicine is no exception.
Beginning with the internet and now extending to devices like the tricorder, consumers have been granted an unprecedented level of information about their own health. The wave of self-diagnosis ushered in by sites like WebMD, a constant consternation to physicians, have empowered patients to resist unnecessary treatments and medical quackery. A professional doctor–the much lauded expert–has to cope with the entire body of human knowledge about every conceivable medical condition. But no one knows the patterns and rhythms of his own body better than the individual, and said individual has the greatest incentive, by far, to acquire solid and extensive information about the single condition from which he suffers.
The decentralization of medicine offered by technology not only increases information, but also lowers the barriers to entry (notwithstanding any legal ramifications) for the amateur practitioner. It will not be long before the medical industry’s ability to restrict output and raise prices will be compromised by increased independence and competence among patients, nurses and alternative medical providers alike. Ultimately, this will lead to more competition, better quality of care and lower prices.
As the icing on the free market cake, the incentive for creating a real life tricorder was partially provided by a privately funded X-Prize, one in a series of large cash prizes offered as rewards for particularly important innovations. The prize was announced in 2011 and stands to pay $10 million dollars to first team to meet its criteria for a functioning replica of the Star Trek device. It’s unclear whether the earliest model of the medical tricorder actually qualifies for this reward yet, but it is inspiring to see private funding play such a pivotal role in scientific development, disproving the notion that only governments are capable of fostering this kind of research.