Thursday, December 23, 2010

Discontinuities in the Health Sector

Discontinuities in the Health Sector

Four potential disruptions: pandemic, campaign against NTDs, global contamination, and super-longevity.

Washington, DC (PRWEB) May 21, 2008

The global health sector could experience a wide variety of discontinuities in coming decades, ranging from disasters, such as a major pandemic, to significant breakthroughs--e. g., the advent of a "cure" for aging, says Matthew Sollenberger, an analyst at the research and consulting firm Social Technologies.

He recently examined the medium-term risks of four possible disruptions to the healthcare sector in the coming decades as part of the company's series on discontinuities (those sudden, sharp breaks that can strike consumers, business sectors, nations, or the world with disruptive force).


There is a substantial risk that the world could experience a pandemic sometime during the next two decades. Global health experts have stated that the world is "overdue" for a major flu pandemic.

"The 20th century saw three flu pandemics, occurring on average every 33 years. As of 2007, it has been almost 40 years since the last influenza pandemic," says Sollenberger.

The danger, he notes, extends well beyond flu viruses; for example, mutations of the highly lethal Marburg or Ebola viruses, which are currently confined to remote World 3 areas, could become more transmissible and spread.

Consumer impact: In the short term, myriad acute consumer impacts would emerge from a pandemic: travel and tourism would likely decline steeply; overall workplace productivity might drop sharply; hospitals and healthcare systems could be significantly strained. Depending upon the demographic profile of the areas afflicted, population balances could be massively altered, which in turn could have significant long-term consumer impacts. Sollenberger warns that if a pandemic happened to disproportionately strike young adults and children, for instance, labor markets could be affected for decades.

Campaign against NTDs

There is a category of tropical diseases that health experts refer to collectively as "neglected tropical diseases," described by economist Jeffrey Sachs as "hellish infections whose combined impact on disease, disability, and death rivals the impacts of AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria."

According to the WHO, at least one-sixth of the global population--comprising well over 1 billion people--suffers from one or more NTDs. Sollenberger is optimistic. "Of the 13 diseases that make up the NTD group, more than half have low-cost, easily administered cures or preventive drugs available, making it theoretically possible to drastically reduce the incidence of NTDs worldwide," he says.

Consumer impact: With potentially hundreds of millions of World 3 individuals being cured or treated--and subsequently able to rejoin the workforce, society, etc.--it is possible that World 3 regions could experience a significant increase in productivity if NTDs were curtailed. Additionally, the average lifespan throughout NTD-affected areas (particularly in Africa) would likely rise.

Global contamination

New chemicals and materials are routinely being incorporated into the environment, and in spite of
Consumer-protection regulations, there is no guarantee that all ill effects, particularly long-term ones, will be discovered before a product hits the market.

Sollenberger offers the following example: the petrofluorochemicals (PFCs) used in the widely popular Scotchgard, a fabric guard produced in the United States from 1956 to 2000, were belatedly found to be both easily absorbed by humans and incredibly durable. "PFC particles circulate inside the body for years after initial contamination, and are quite possibly toxic, even in small quantities," he says.

Consumer impact: Consumers might become suspicious of any new materials, chemicals, or nanotechnologies--possibly even opposing their development. Once confronted with a major contamination scare, people would be more likely to pay attention to related ecological and public health issues in the future (in the same way that people still have strong feelings and concerns regarding nuclear power and contamination issues, decades after contamination events).


In the 20th century, people experienced significant gains in lifespan, measurable in decades. However, most people want to live even longer, and with advances in genetics, it is possible that this goal of a super-extended human lifespan could become a reality within a few decades.

Sollenberger reports that as of 2007, scientists had identified at least two genes that appear to have substantial effects on lifespan: PHA-4 and SIR2. Thus far, genetic manipulation has been used to extend the lifespan of organisms such as yeast cells, worms, and mice by 30-40%.

Consumer impact: "The average retirement age could rise substantially, as individuals adjust to extra decades. Eighty could become the new 60--and, as a result, mixing of generational cultures would likely increase sharply," says Sollenberger. "It could become routine for venues (workplaces, sporting events, restaurants, etc.) to have to accommodate significant age and culture gaps. Additionally, World 1 and World 2 countries might experience mini-population booms, due to the expansion of the demographic curve."

Learn more

To talk to Matthew Sollenberger about this discontinuity and its relevance to major business sectors, contact Hope Gibbs, Social Technologies' leader of corporate communications: hope. gibbs@socialtechnologies. com.

About ) The Discontinuities Series

Social Technologies recently released a series of briefs called Discontinuities, which are those sudden, sharp breaks that can strike consumers, business sectors, nations, or the world with disruptive force. Exactly when, where, or how such events will occur is inherently hard to foresee. This brief explores one potential discontinuity in the health sector. The company also has information on discontinuities in the Metaverse, food, and technology industries. Visit www. socialtechnologies. com/news. aspx (http://www. socialtechnologies. com/news. aspx) for details.

Matthew Sollenberger ) Futurist

Matthew Sollenberger joined the research team at Social Technologies in the spring of 2007. Previously he worked as a research analyst at The Arlington Institute (TAI), a futurist consultancy in Northern Virginia, where he focused on the Risk Assessment and Horizon Scanning Project for an Asian government, and engaged in Middle Eastern conflict modeling, systems thinking, and morphological analysis. Also at TAI, he co-authored a paper on the implications of wildcards for long-term US national security interests, published in the fall 2006 issue of National Strategy Forum Review. Areas of expertise: Foreign policy, technology.

About ) Social Technologies

Social Technologies is a global research and consulting firm specializing in the integration of foresight, strategy, and innovation. With offices in Washington DC, London, and Shanghai, Social Technologies serves the world's leading companies, government agencies, and nonprofits. For information visit www. socialtechnologies. com, our blog: http://changewaves. socialtechnologies. com (http://changewaves. socialtechnologies. com), and our newsletter: www. socialtechnologies. com/changewaves (http://www. socialtechnologies. com/changewaves).