What the healthcare ruling means for tech

July 17, 2012: 12:54 PM ET

Major changes are coming to big healthcare providers. That means disruption -- and opportunity.

By Brian OʼKeefe, assistant managing editor

FORTUNE -- Chief Justice John Roberts might be a health care technology innovatorʼs best friend.

Why? The Supreme Courtʼs recent 5-4 decision to uphold President Obamaʼs signature piece of health care legislation, the Affordable Care Act, means that radical changes are coming for the $2.6 trillion industry. By forcing care providers and payers to share risk and accountability, the law incentivizes all parties to focus preventive care and to share the reams of data they generate. That should result in both a better standard of care -- and an opportunity for companies that can best harness that data.

That was one of the conclusions of a panel on The Future of Medicine at Fortuneʼs Brainstorm Tech conference in Aspen, Colo., on Tuesday.

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"The Affordable Care Act is badly flawed, but itʼs a major leap forward in accountability," said Michael Long, the former chairman and CEO of Healtheon/WebMD and now CEO of Essence Group Holdings, which applies information technology to health care. Long believes the law will add momentum to a data revolution in the industry. "The next three years are going to be incredibly exciting," he said.

There is a huge opportunity to increase efficiency. Bryan Spielman, head of strategy for Medidata Solutions, said that a recent study conducted by his company with the Tufts University School of Medicine found that 25% of all clinical trial procedures are not needed. "Itʼs a data problem and itʼs a data solution," said Spielman. "There are countless inefficiencies. The only way to break them down is by harnessing data."

Increasingly, you may be able to access your own medical data—right from your smartphone. HealthTap recently launched an app that allows people to ask questions of doctors or book appointments. It also gives patients the ability to securely, in compliance with HIPAA law, share their own medical history with doctors of their choice, said founder and CEO Ron Gutman.

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But say that you want a second opinion from a truly neutral expert, one that can read and digest 200 million pages of research on your medical condition in a second or two. That may be possible in the near future. The expert? None other than Watson, the IBM computer that has learned to dominate his human competition in Jeopardy.

IBM (IBM) is working with the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, said Martin Kohn the chief medical scientist at IBM Research, to teach Watson about cancer treatment and research. In the future, cancer patients at the hospital may be able to ask Watson questions in regular language about their care options and get informed responses that outline their options. "Weʼre looking for ways to integrate patient preferences into their care more so than in the past," said Kohn.

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