As part of my series on “The Future of Healthcare”, I had the pleasure of interviewing …
Dr. Bertalan Mesko, PhD is The Medical Futurist and the Director of The Medical Futurist Institute analyzing how science fiction technologies can become reality in medicine and healthcare. As a geek physician with a PhD in genomics, he is also an Amazon Top 100 author. He is also a Private Professor at Semmelweis Medical School, Budapest, Hungary. With 500+ presentations including courses at Harvard, Stanford and Yale Universities, Singularity University’s Futuremed course at NASA Ames campus and organizations including the 10 biggest pharmaceutical companies, he is one of the top voices globally on healthcare technology. Dr. Mesko was featured by dozens of top publications, including CNN, the World Health Organization, National Geographic, Forbes, TIME magazine, BBC, and the New York Times. He publishes his analyses regularly on medicalfuturist.com.
What brought you to this specific career path?
I remember a time when I fell in love with the scientific method. I can trace it back to the children’s encyclopedia that my mother bought me as a child. As I grew older, I decided that I wanted to devote my life to medical science, particularly genetics. With that, I finished medical school, then a Ph.D. in genomics.
After completing my Ph.D. I realized that something was missing in my life. Through quite a bit of soul searching, I realized that I would rather have supervision of over 30 different branches or trends in technologies, rather than focusing on just one subfield of science. There is no profession where I could achieve that–I had to design my own profession. And that’s how I became The Medical Futurist.
I took courses at Harvard’s extension school, Singularity University, and many others. These courses helped me form the idea that I wanted to make a transition from the life sciences to social sciences and futuristic studies.
About eight years ago, I started to build a team around the medical futurist concept. Our mission is to help people understand the context behind digital health technologies from artificial intelligence to health sensors, and how it can impact his or her life.
And after a few years, I realized that governments and major organizations are actively seeking help in these areas. So we started to help them. Two years ago, I officially launched The Medical Futurist Institute, which conducts peer-reviewed research and provides consulting services in the field of digital health technology.
Can you share one of the most exciting stories that have happened to you since you began your career?
What a great question! I’ve had many exciting invitations and inquiries from companies working on really innovative technologies, and I’ve had the opportunity to test many of these myself. It’s inspiring to see the stuff of science fiction, the ideas and technologies you had read about years ago, and then you see these ideas and innovations in real life. For example, I felt like a kid the first time I experimented with mixed reality devices.
However, the most exciting story is when I met with the Senate of Canada. The Senate invited me a year and a half ago for a public hearing about artificial intelligence, and how it affects the healthcare space. It was inspiring to see how serious and dedicated the politicians were to bringing technologies into healthcare so that we can change lives. They were actively looking for help from outside experts. From that experience, I felt like the world has such a bright future, and humanity truly has hope.
Experiences like this makes my life and my job brighter every day. Just a few weeks ago, I received an invitation from the World Health Organization to share a report on digital health. Theseare the amazing opportunities that we are working for, opportunities where we can contribute to where digital health is heading globally.
That’s very exciting! Congratulations! The next question is, what are the innovations that you are either bringing to the industry or that you see in the industry?
Absolutely! Some people call me the patient of the future. As a researcher and physician working in this field for 10 years, I realized that I have to test everything that is out there to help the patients, physicians, and policymakers genuinely understand where digital health is heading.
I’ve tested health sensors, online platforms and genetic tests. I’ve tried out a full genome sequencing service. During my journey, I’ve tested and shared what I’ve learned from testing out each product. I’ve learned about what medications I have a sensitivity for, what conditions I am at higher risks. I’ve tested, and shared, what it means to interpret large amounts of data with and without a partnership with my primary care doctor. I’ve shown people what it means to track sleep, how to use a smart sleep alarm so that you wake up at the best time and feel immediately energized. I’ve researched and shared what kind of bacteria live in my digestive system and what type of diet will be beneficial for me based on the four kilograms of bacteria detected.
I’ve tested more than 120+ digital health technologies to truly become the patient of the future. I’ve tested some great devices, and some awful gadgets. I used this one sleep tracker that included a sleep mask. My wife loved it so much because when I turned it on, a green light came out of my forehead. She couldn’t sleep for hours because she was laughing so hard about the green light. I believe my team and I bring true value in testing all the products out there and really sharing which products truly work, which could work with some behavioral tweaking, and which products may need to go back to the drawing board.
Keeping the ideas of Black Mirror and Unintended Consequences, do you see any potential drawbacks that we should think more about in the future?
Sure, and this is an important question. Privacy is a huge issue. I am sure that many of the companies and products that I shared my data with are also selling that data. Even if I go out of my way to opt-out of sharing data, my genomic information, although anonymized, could theoretically have been sold to third parties.
The second issue is accuracy. I have to be a physician, a researcher, a geek and have the opportunities to get quite close to these technologies in order to accurately analyze the sets of data and draw the appropriate conclusions. It is very challenging to assess the accuracy of data, insights, and efficiency of the products without a blend of the right traits, training, and opportunity.
And lastly, the cost is usually an issue. I get these technologies for free, but the patients do not. Although the price of many of the technologies such as genome sequencing or health sensors have decreased over time, it is still not enough to provide access to low resource regions. This leads to a socio-economic gap between those who would afford the technologies and live longer and healthier lives, and those who cannot.
I am a very optimistic person, and perhaps even romantic, about digital health. But due to current lack of regulations, inadequate regulations, physician reluctance or messy data, the field of digital health has a long way to go to overcome these setbacks.
Great! On a more positive stream, how do you see digital health disrupting the status quo or changing the world?
Digital health will make me, the patient, the point of care. This is one of the most significant milestones and breakthrough in the history of medicine. Since the dawn of medicine, we have been in an ivory tower. Only medical professionals can assess data, information, and medical technologies. There is no script or manual for the patient. The physician has the key. They open the gate, they let us in, they tell us what to do. Then we, as the patient, go home, and only half of us comply with the therapy prescribed. It’s an incredibly inefficient process.
Now, it’s different! Because it is the 21st century, and we have new advancements in technology, a rise in social media, Amazon, crowdsourcing, and access to information, we are no longer in an ivory tower. There is no hierarchy.
And because of this, we are becoming the point of care. So wherever we are, we want to get the best diagnosis. The best treatments. We should have an accessible, personalized, preventive, customized and humanistic patient journey.
Digital health is a cultural transformation that creates a new status quo, where the relationship between a doctor and a patient becomes an equal-level partnership.
What are your “5 Things I Wish I knew”?
1. I wish someone could have told me that if you believed in a mission (and in this case, a new model in medical science), then you have to keep doing it for years without results. Years ago, I would tell myself to keep going, that may be in another five or 10 or 15 years, the results would come. It did, but it was a slow process.
2. I also wish someone could have told me that no matter how confident I am about what I can achieve alone, I’m not enough. Without a dedicated team and people who are much better at tasks that you are not, it’s impossible to achieve anything.
3. I wish someone would have told me to focus more on artificial intelligence from the beginning. Although my research is now focused on artificial intelligence, I may be a bit late to the game. It would have been great to focus on A.I. right from the start, around 2005.
4. It would also be great if someone could have told me which of the 120+ technologies I should not bother testing. It would have saved me a lot of time, energy, effort, and money.
5. And lastly, I wish someone would have told me that as soon as genome sequencing becomes affordable, I should immediately get my genome sequenced. I learned the most from my genomic tests.
What philosophies do you believe in?
• Be a cognitive exhibitionist. I don’t care if I don’t appear somewhere physically, or if my name doesn’t appear on a paper, but I do want my visions and my thoughts to be shared, to be criticized, to be commented on. And in saying this out loud, it helped me understand why I devote so much of my professional life to the online world.
• FC. Barcelona. I am an atheist, but my religion is FC Barcelona. I am a football fan, but I also believe in the team’s motto. ‘Mes Que un Club.’ It means ‘It’s more than a club.’ It’s not about measured success, results, or winning the game. It’s about the team, the relationships. I don’t know if you know the football team, but the way they play is just like art. It’s beautiful. I go to that church every six months to watch the game. The players play the game in a way that shows us it is much more important to enjoy what you are doing than to care about what accolades you are achieving.
• Contribute, because we are all human. I learned this from my mother. We have to have big goals for a Moon or Mars-Shot. But we have to contribute to society. We have to help people in low resource regions. This is why I became a medical professional. It’s why I built The Medical Futurist team. I do this so that there might be a better world for my children. And I hope that they will do the same, that they will contribute and make it better for their own children. That’s the kind of beautiful sequence I live by.
You’ve been in a unique position to see the future of digital health unfurl. What is your advice on how we can future proof our career?
Cognitive Time Traveling
I thought about this a lot because I teach medical students. I focus some of my research on skills that are needed for the future. And one technique that I’ve discovered is helpful is to be a time traveler.
It’s a weird expression, but I believe that the time I spend cognitive time traveling (what others may call daydreaming) is crucial. In these moments, I am actively thinking about some aspects of life, and how these elements might change in the future because of advanced technology or cultural transformation. I think about how society reshapes itself, and how my relationship with these changes will occur.
For example, two days ago, I started to think about an A.I. powered chatbot that knows all the jokes you love, and that knows exactly how to motivate you to go out for a run. What if the chatbot knew how to help you in your job? These might be farfetched, but I don’t think they are. By thinking about what could be, it gradually prepares me for any kind of scenarios.
In the book “21 Lessons in the 21st Century” Harari believes that you have to continually reinvent yourself and learn how to enjoy being outside of your comfort zone.
In other words, we need to adopt skills evolution. What skills do you need for the future? For example, five months ago, I started to work with an international chess master. I want to be semi-professional, and my theory is that by learning chess, I can understand the role of A.I in medicine, and how machine learning algorithms work better. By jumping into different areas, I constantly create new skills that help to reinvent who I am and what I am.
Thank you so much! How can our readers follow you?
Visit medicalfuturist.com. You can find everything from analysis to digital health, to sensors and genome. On that website, you can find links to all my social media accounts, including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube., Instagram, LinkedIn.