Here’s an anecdote from the struggle against Baumol’s Disease. I was having a kind of weird problem with my left thumb over the course of the past few days. Uncomfortable and annoying, especially when trying to hit the space bar on the keyboard, but not like crippling or horrible. Finally I figured out that it looked to me like an infection of the cuticle so I should do Web search for “cuticle infection.” That brought me to a Wikipedia page on which I learned that the technical term for such a thing is “paronychia” and also saw a photo of someone with paronychia, which let me confirm that this is indeed what I had.
That led to a bit more Googling so I could check out what the Mayo Clinic and the National Institutes of Health had to say about the matter. They made me even more confident that this was the condition by noting that it typically happens to habitual fingernail biters (guilty) or people who’ve recently been in the water a lot (swimming pool on vacation).
Everyone basically agrees that this isn’t a huge deal and that you can obtain some physical relief by occasionally soaking the thumb in hot water while waiting for it to clear up. I took that advice starting yesterday morning, and today I feel a lot better. Not really because the hot water is such a great cure for the discomfort (though it does help) but because of the immense psychological relief associated with getting a diagnosis and a prescribed course of treatment. Even in cases where the indicated treatment is basically “do nothing” (which is very often the case—people who are sick tend to get better) it makes you feel a lot better to specifically hear that from an authoritative person.
So there we have it. In a small but real way, information technology reduced the cost of this particular health care service. Productivity for the win.
Obviously there are lots of things we aren’t going to treat in this way, but I’m quite optimistic that information technology in the health care sector is going to do us a lot of good. Health needs are oddly distributed between the more or less routine maladies that everyone experiences multiple times a year, and the relatively rare serious conditions that cost huge sums of money. IT doesn’t show a lot of immediate promise on the latter kind of issues if you ask me, but the routine care is very important to day-to-day quality of life for the bulk of people and IT is very promising in this sphere. And the key thing to remember is that when it comes to routine care, the output of the health care system isn’t just curing illness it’s making people feel better. Moderately more intelligent computers systems than the ones we have today, plus the infusion of a few dollops of human labor (a bunch of nurses in a command center, say), plus the continued diffusion of computer literacy could easily give working- and middle-class Americans very cheap access to 24/7 diagnostic services.