Technology is Transforming Our Economy & Society – Except Higher Education & Healthcare?

May 28, 2018

I think that everyone can agree that technology has dramatically changed our lives, particularly over the last 30 or so years.  And the rate of change seems to be accelerating.  Just think of our life prepersonal computer, or pre smart phone.  Technology has impacted how we do our daily tasks, our jobs and how we perform our duties, how we communicate and relate to one another, etc.  In particular, the cost of some of our purchased items has decreased, or functionality has increased with little change in price.  We can debate whether the change, and in particular the rate of change is good or bad, but that is another topic for another day.

Technology has eliminated labor in many services and manufactured good that we depend on, and thereby reduced cost or slowed price increases.  There are two segments of our society that are major exceptions.  These are education and healthcare, both critical to maintaining a healthy democracy.  Education is critical because our life is more complex due to technology driven change, and the better paying jobs need more training, more education.  Healthcare is critical because to be productive we need to be healthy.  It seems that technology has not focused on improving productivity and efficiency in these two areas.

Lets look at some statistics.  According to the National Center for Education Statistics the cost of a 4 year college education (averaged over all public and private institutions in current dollars and including all costs – tuition, books, room and board) in 1984/85 was about $5,000 and in 2014/15 was about $25,000, a 5-fold increase.  According to healthsystemtracker.org, national healthcare expenditures (again in current dollars) in 1985 was about $400 Billion and in 2015 was about $3300 Billion, an 8-fold increase.  There was population growth in this period obviously, but not enough to significantly reduce this major change.  To put this in perspective, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the CPI (consumer price index) experienced a change of about 2.2 from 1985 to 2015.

The result for education is that it is becoming economically out of reach for many and for many more a huge debt burden that adds stress and discontent.  All this while education is critical to the jobs of the future.  Public education has always been the most affordable, but chronic budget problems has reduced funding for education.  Clearly, the solution must include recognition of the need for a higher societal priority for education.  Public funding for education must also include new technology to improve the delivery of an education – AI and computer aided study and online access to lectures and resources.  Not every student learns in the same way or at the same rate.  Technology can ‘personalize’ delivery, at the same time the labor content of delivery is reduced.

Healthcare, in contrast, is experiencing a lot of technology driven innovation.  This technology produces new cures, new procedures, new testing techniques, and new pharmaceuticals.  These in turn are priced to recover development cost and profits to fund new research.  This process is profitable and the capitalist system is the engine that keeps it going.  The answer to the cost crisis must be in the efficiency of delivery.  More technology must be applied to home delivery, remote diagnostics and consultation, artificial intelligence for diagnostics, home care vs hospital care.

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