Bill Gates Skeptical of Cell Phones in Health Care

Says the technology has done more for medical research than in application.
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Legendary software architect and now philanthropist Bill Gates is not enthusiastic about the future application of cell phones in health care, saying the technology has done more for medical research, than in application.

However, Gates, who was a keynote speaker on Nov. 9 at the mHealth Summit in Washington, D.C., was quick to add that there are important applications for cell-phone technology in health care, such as in tracking medicines and other goods in the supply chain, or reminding patients in remote areas to take their medications. Much of the summit was devoted to reviewing ways cell phones have been useful—especially in remote areas of the planet—in increasing health care among the poorest populations. In a non-traditional key note address, Gates took questions from Kristin Tolle, the director of natural user interactions for Microsoft Research.

In the areas where patients need to be reminded to take HIV medications, tuberculosis drugs, or be administered vaccines, cell phones have had “a lot of impact,” said Gates, who added “there’s a chance to go beyond that” with patients in programs such as patient registries that would be accessed by mobile phones.

However, while “there’s a lot of opportunities, we have to approach these things with some humility,” he said. “It’s very easy to fool yourself that something works,” and those oversee a project have to be aware that a program might work “in one place but not another,” he said.

“It’s possible to see something work in the microcosm, but when you scale up it doesn’t work that well,” Gates said. Therefore, “the lens of did it work, has to be a very tough one.” Of course cell phones are still a new technology and the health-care applications need to be allowed to “blossom,” and “branch out,” he said. “There will be some dead ends.”

Away from cell phones, Gates said the next innovation in health-care technology is going to be robots. The computers needed to drive robots are gaining “high-end visual application,” as well as learning to talk and listen, he said. Robots’ ambulatory skills have improved greatly in the laboratory, and robotic dexterity levels “are maybe five-years behind the ambulatory.” When those are solved, robots can learn surgical procedures, or even basic patient care. “Once a robot learns how to do it, it doesn’t forget how to do it, and they can do it 24 hours a day,” he said.

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