Investing in Sustainable Aging: Driving Towards Personal Healthcare Reform

Imagine a contest held today using two different cars—one powered by hydrogen fuel cell technology and one with traditional gasoline engine technology—to see which could carry each of my parents across the country to visit me near Portland, Oregon. Obviously, I want them to have a safe, efficient, high quality, low cost experience. Let’s assume they start heading west from Washington, D.C. with full fuel tanks. The hydrogen car, with my Dad on board (he loves new technology!), starts out winning in cost and time, especially when the gas car with my Mom on board has to stop for more gas, more restroom breaks (sorry, Mom!), and a quick repair near the western Pennsylvania/Maryland border.

So after the first day, Dad in the hydrogen car is way in the lead.

But just past Indianapolis (they are taking the I-70 route), the hydrogen car eventually needs to stop for more fuel. The driver sputters around six different towns but can’t find a fuel station that has hydrogen. “We don’t even know what kind of fuel that is,” says one of the gas station attendants. To the further dismay of my Dad and his driver, the hydrogen car is overheating, so the driver asks for help from a local mechanic who shrugs and says “Sorry, I’ve never seen anything like this engine…I have no idea how to fix your car.”

Now the hydrogen car driver and my Dad have to figure out how to make hydrogen fuel to refill their car, and they have to take a crash course in how to fix a hydrogen engine since there is no infrastructure or trained workforce to deal with their kind of car technology. They get an apartment on the outskirts of Indianapolis to learn all of these things, eventually fixing the car (my Dad is pretty handy) and getting more hydrogen fuel.

With great fanfare from my Mom who has missed him terribly, my Dad ends up crossing the finish line in Portland, Oregon about 16 months after than the gasoline car arrived. His bill costs about $36 million dollars to get there, whereas the gas car spent less than $2000 which included fast food at Dairy Queens for Mom all the way across the country. While Mom had a great 3-day journey, this ended up being a miserable experience for both of them due to the 16 months apart, and they say they will never again try hydrogen cars.

Of course, this scenario is absurd. Why would anyone in their right mind sign up for this contest with their one-off, expensive hydrogen car in a cross-country competition with a gasoline car? There is no infrastructure, no trained workforce, no businesses or business model for support, no societal understanding of hydrogen cars across the entire country. Our historical tradition of gasoline still dominates our culture. Yet, this is the kind of absurd contest that personal health technologies are asked to compete in all the time. We’re supposed to prove our right to exist by somehow being cheaper, more efficient, and delivering better quality care than historical healthcare means…even though there is no infrastructure, business model, trained workforce, and cultural support for the kind of home-based care we’re proposing.

Today our nation is starting to invest in “sustainable energy” and green technology—for cars and other industries—because we have: 1) enough evidence that the technology holds great promise; 2) enough of a threat of global warming at our doorstep that we have no choice but to get started; and 3) a desire to create a new economy with new jobs based on this cultural transformation. So, too, I believe we have enough evidence that personal health technologies hold great promise, that global aging is enough of an economic threat at our doorstep to warrant urgent action, and that new personal health care jobs, technologies, and services justify beginning to invest in this cultural transformation. We need “sustainable aging” along with “sustainable energy.”

Personal health technologies are to health care reform…as green technologies are to energy reform. Both hold great promise but require much scientific and business investigation to see that promise fulfilled. Both depend upon fundamental cultural and business transformations to be successful, since technology alone cannot solve all our problems. And both must be undertaken and invested in seriously and quickly given the urgency of global forces that threaten our nation should we fail to act.

Global aging and global warming may be the two most important megatrends for our time…that will force us to rethink who we are, how we act as a society, and what sustainability really means. How we care for our bodies and minds…as much as how we care for our environment and natural resources…are both life-and-death matters that deserve leadership, investment, and fast action by everyone from D.C. to Portland and all points between. We need to drive towards personal healthcare and to put “sustainable aging” on the national agenda—as the other “inconvenient truth” that our planet must begin to face head on.

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