The cure for what ails us is under our thumbs, a physician said Thursday.

Facebook, Twitter and their wireless spinoffs will make people healthier as a group and as individuals, Dr. Eric Topol told Avera McKennan Hospital employees in a Sioux Falls seminar.

Social network users still will need doctors, but they will turn more to each other in a new universe of preventive medicine, he said.

“They trust their online peers more than their doctors,” Topol said.

Topol, 57, is director of the Scripps Translational Science Institute in San Diego. He spoke to 325 Avera McKennan employees Thursday morning at the Sioux Falls Convention Center in a program marking the hospital’s centennial. Afternoon and evening sessions pushed attendance for the day to 1,000.

He described for them a radical new design in the medical industry. Consumers will benefit from instant monitoring of vital signs. They can set up a phone alert if blood sugar is off or if they are in danger of a heart attack. And they will communicate among themselves as they practice a form of self-policing medicine that is free and effective and makes them smarter.

“Medicine is going to go through the biggest shakeup in its history,” Topol said.

Science and the social marketplace are forcing this. Health care is turning from a model that relies on general guidelines, such as starting mammograms at age 40, to a new model that customizes best practices for individuals, he said. That change rises in part from progress in genome mapping. The cost of plotting someone’s DNA is now down to about $5,000, cheaper than some hospital stays. Knowing the DNA will let doctors zoom in on what an individual needs, even if it runs counter to the population as a whole.

“We have the ability to digitize human beings,” he said.

But the change ahead also rises from the ease of electronic monitoring and the willingness of people to share personal details. Friends will know if friends have had enough sleep, have taken their 10,000 steps in a day or if their cholesterol is right. They’ll keep each other honest and may compete for the best health, all because of Facebook and its cousins.

Listeners in the audience wondered about unintended consequences. Gary Weisbrich, manager of chaplain services at McKennan, asked if some information could be too much. “For how many people will this create an obsession, am I going to have a heart attack, and how does that affect how they live life to the fullest?”

“Everything is a tradeoff,” Topol said. “People adapt.”

A new era in self-medicine won’t keep people out of hospitals or doctors’ offices if they need to be there, but it will prevent many needless trips, Topol said. That should make it appealing to insurance companies and governments hoping to save money, even if it challenges the system of reimbursements for doctor services, he said.

The changes also should produce an avalanche of personal medical data to help science, Topol said. And the very act of social networking fires the brain in a way that engages learning and stimulates intelligence. He said it’s much like reading a book.


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