Picture of Health: A Snapshot of Health Care’s Future

June 1, 2018


Articles on the future of health care often predict ever-rising costs and disruptive digital innovations. To understand what these changes will mean for professional communicators, Strategies & Tactics turned to Jonathan Peck, president and senior futurist at the Alexandria, Va.-based Institute for Alternative Futures (IAF), which helps organizations monitor trends.

Peck will be among the speakers at a daylong conference that Boston University Metropolitan College will host on June 16 to celebrate its decade of leadership in health-communication graduate studies. (For more details on the conference, titled “Health Communication in the Decade Ahead,” visit bu.edu/met.)

America’s opioid crisis, aging population and policy uncertainties are among the many risks its health-care sector faces. Are there other risks for health care that have not yet appeared on the radar?

For those who work in health care, one risk rarely discussed is the vulnerability of jobs and incomes as the cost of health care rises and its value diminishes. Enter artificial intelligence. The ability to access medical knowledge will expand, and that may mean people can get what they need to know from less expensive sources, which will make many professional providers vulnerable to technological displacement. 

How will technology, AI and neuroscience reshape how we communicate?

We are sure to be surprised by what the biggest impacts prove to be. At this point, most of what is called “artificial intelligence” is a lot more artificial than it is intelligent, in part because IT engineers know so little about multiple forms of human intelligence. 

This knowledge gap is shrinking now. We should anticipate that the many different forms of intelligence that humans have developed will increasingly get added to AI programs. Yet the field of affective computing is bringing more facets of human personalities to computer programs, so they already seem more human in their interactions with us. We should foresee more emotionally appealing computer interactions designed for our personality preferences.

While we tend to focus on technology, it is actually unforeseen changes in us that will reshape communications and with whom we communicate. AI will more than augment human intelligence; it will likely boost it mightily. This will not be primarily a boost in individual intelligence but in collective intelligence.

We’ll see it first among our young, who are reshaping how communications occur as they spend more time on social media. They will likely grow up with higher collective intelligence.

When they are young they primarily want to communicate with other young people. In middle age they will want to shape the thinking of those who are older and younger as well, and they’ll do it with AI tools that make video and sound a lot more compelling than print.

A lot of what we think we are learning today will be shown to be fundamentally wrong. That said, we are going to be learning a great deal about how our brains and minds work and fail to work. 

And this learning gets transferred pretty quickly into our AI and virtual reality tools, so it will be shaping and misshaping our views of ourselves. Most important, we may get a lot more intelligent in shaping environments for our children that fulfill their potential. When neuroscience shows us how to optimize developing brains, we will likely do a lot better by the many children whose futures are diminished early in life. Research on adverse childhood events already shows that damage to our young is lifelong and conveyed to subsequent generations. The greatest learning from neuroscience may be to improve the development of young brains by surrounding them with better social environments.

What forces do you predict will disrupt health care in 2030?

The leading cause of disruption in health care will be learning. The more we learn, the less willing we will be to accept the policies and practices driving us to become a less healthy society while paying more than we can afford for what we don’t need. Smart leaders are going to drive this disruption, and they will be even smarter in 2030. That’s because they will be learning from the terrible failures of today.

Take the failure of many states, including my own [Virginia], to expand Medicaid. Those states have fewer reported cases of diabetes than states that have expanded Medicaid. Why? Because it is not diagnosed, and therefore will likely go unmanaged. And that means states that have failed to expand Medicaid will learn before 2030 that they are paying a lot more for limb amputations, blindness, kidney failure and heart disease than states that have prevented diabetes from progressing. A smarter generation using AI tools will reveal the cost of our failures, and this will prove very disruptive to health care. 

What will public health look like in 2030?

The Institute for Alternative Futures has a report, “Public Health 2030: A Scenario Exploration,” that offers four snapshots. Saying that any one of them accurately predicts what public health will look like would be a mistake.

But if we make foolish decisions today we will see an overwhelmed and under-resourced public health system that makes us terribly vulnerable as a society. We have two scenarios in which public health leadership creates a far healthier society. If we learn to do better, we’ll see a scenario like “Community-Driven Health and Equity” by 2030.

What can communicators do now to start preparing for that future?

The best communications strategy starts with a vision that helps people see a better future that offers hope. Then it is important to add an objective assessment of the actions that will make this envisioned future more likely. To make this strategy work today means using interactive communications that enable dialogue across boundaries that segment. In a fractionated society it is far easier to draw attention to our fears than to our positive emotions.

Yet if we use communications to share positive emotions, we increase the capacity for cooperation to shift society from policies and practices that will prove disastrous to systems that improve health and health care.

For APRs, BU Waives 2 Courses in Health Communication Master’s Program

Boston University Metropolitan College recently announced that professionals who have earned their APR designation can waive two courses on acceptance to the school’s Master of Science in Health Communication program. Equivalent to eight academic credit hours, the two-course waiver recognizes the mastery of strategic communication practice. For more information, visit bu.edu/met.

John Elsasser

John Elsasser is the editor-in-chief of Strategies & Tactics. He joined PRSA in 1994.



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