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A revolution in health care is coming

No wonder they are called patients. When people enter the health-care systems of rich countries today, they know what they will get: prodding doctors, endless tests, baffling jargon, rising costs and, above all, long waits. Some stoicism will always be needed, because health care is complex and diligence matters. But frustration is boiling over. This week three of the biggest names in American business Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan Chase announced a new venture to provide better, cheaper health care for their employees. A fundamental problem with todays system is that patients lack knowledge and control. Access to data can bestow both.

The internet already enables patients to seek online consultations when and where it suits them. You can take over-the-counter tests to analyse your blood, sequence your genome and check on the bacteria in your gut. Yet radical change demands a shift in emphasis, from providers to patients and from doctors to data. That shift is happening. Technologies such as the smartphone allow people to monitor their own health. The possibilities multiply when you add the crucial missing ingredients access to your own medical records and the ability easily to share information with those you trust. That allows you to reduce inefficiencies in your own treatment and also to provide data to help train medical algorithms. You can enhance your own care and everyone else, too.

The doctor will be you now

Medical data may not seem like the type of kindling to spark a revolution. But the flow of information is likely to bear fruit in several ways. One is better diagnosis. Someone worried about their heart can now buy a watch strap containing a medical-grade monitor that will detect arrhythmias. Apps are vying to see if they can diagnose everything from skin cancer and concussion to Parkinsons disease. Research is under way to see whether sweat can be analysed for molecular biomarkers without the need for an invasive blood test. Some think that changes in how quickly a person swipes a phones touchscreen might signal the onset of cognitive problems.

A second benefit lies in the management of complex diseases. Diabetes apps can change the way patients cope, by monitoring blood-glucose levels and food intake, potentially reducing long-run harm such as blindness and gangrene. Akili Interactive, a startup, plans to seek regulatory approval for a video game designed to stimulate an area of the brain implicated in attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Patients can also improve the efficiency of their care. Although health records are increasingly electronic, they are often still trapped in silos. Many contain data that machines cannot read. This can lead to delays in treatment, or worse. Many of the 250,000 deaths in America attributable to medical error each year can be traced to poorly co-ordinated care. With data at their fingertips, common standards to enable sharing and a strong incentive to get things right, patients are more likely to spot errors. On January 24th Apple laid out its plans to ask organisations to let patients use their smartphones to download their own medical records.