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The possible cure for health care ills

There's little on the surface that's attractive about the health care industry, says CNET News.com's Michael Kanellos. Except maybe medical devices.

A friend of mine, a doctor, can vividly recall the summer job his dad got him years ago.

He was helping at a rest home--his dad thought it would be a good way for him to see if he really wanted to become a physician. Within an hour on the job, an elderly woman shouted an order at him.

"Hey, Nursie, tux me," she said. "Tux tux tux."

What was all the talk about formal wear? One of the permanent employees explained. The patient wanted my friend to grab a Tucks medicated pad for hemorrhoids and apply it. Every day that summer started the same way.

That anecdote goes a long way toward explaining why America is currently embroiled in a health care crisis. First, the obvious. Health care is a massive problem worldwide. People are living longer, the population is aging, and we don't have enough doctors, nurses or orderlies to take care of them.

Health care conjures up images of hospital gowns, undecipherable medical bills, antiseptic smells and old people writhing in pain.

Problems, however, breed opportunities. As a result, health care, energy, agriculture and education are probably the most significant markets for future growth.

Unfortunately, there's very little that's attractive on the surface about the health care industry. With energy, you can talk about cutting greenhouse gases and saving the environment. Better education means improving the lives of kids. Agriculture has family farms, amber waves, and so on.

Health care conjures up images of hospital gowns, undecipherable medical bills, antiseptic smells and old people writhing in pain. Believe me: I'm not unsympathetic. I've been visiting my grandmother for four years in a rest home. There's very little you can do to make the end of life a pleasant experience.

It's also not an easy path to riches anymore. Back in the '70s, it seemed like a significant number of kids wanted to become doctors. Doctors drove Mercedes convertibles and married the suburban equivalent of fashion models. They were the top of the social and economic heap in America. A 20-year bull run on Wall Street and tech IPO riches killed that.

Worse, the country's health problems could accelerate a trend toward a modern version of feudalism. About two years ago at PC Forum (a conference News.com publisher CNET Networks used to run), a panelist suggested that software developers and other clerical workers displaced by outsourcing could find careers in "higher-value fields...or eldercare."

You could see some people around the room cringe. So that's the future, they seemed to think. Earn a college degree, work for a few years at an Internet start-up, and then move onto a fulfilling role of scraping Maypo off someone's chin if you don't become one of those rare people who get past the glass ceiling. "So how are those boils treating you, Mr. Smith? Did you roll over them in your sleep last night? Did I ever tell you about my days at Vassar?"

The bright spot
But there is a bright spot: medical devices, which combine high technology and potentially astronomical profits. Some researchers are developing retinal implants for the blind. In the second quarter, venture capitalists plunked about $1 billion into medical devices, a 58 percent increase from a year ago, according to a recent study from Ernst & Young.

Plus, there's a broad enough range of bodily functions to interest people without a level of detail that would make them recoil. Sort of like the cool fire of Tucks.

For instance, there's Satiety, a company that has designed a device that lets doctors insert stomach staples without surgery. Satiety's device is slipped down a patient's throat, thereby reducing the recovery time and the potential for complications. Surveys show that surgery prompts many obese patients to decline full treatment.

Obesity has become a major international problem and it isn't a laughing matter. However, someone sticking a space-age Swingline down another person's throat to plunk some staples in--call me callous, but there's something weirdly amusing about that.

Satiety recently raised $30 million.

Then there's C-Care Medical Systems. Did you know that 50 percent of U.S. men over the age of 50 suffer benign prostatic hyperplasia, which puts extreme pressure on the urethra, and 80 percent suffer it by the age of 80?

"If you don't have it now, you will," CEO Chen Porat says cheerfully.

Or the VelaSmooth System from Syneron Medical. It removes body hair, but can also sculpt cellulite, making it harder to spot. The light and energy source employed to accomplish these tasks derived from a tool used to remove paint from aircraft.

"With liposuction, you end up with very loose skin," founder Shimon Eckhouse told me. "Yes, I got rid of 5 pounds of fat, but now my skin looks horrible. Vela is actually effective in post-liposuction treatment. Doctors are buying it to tighten the thighs."

Again, enough gross details to be amusing. Eckhouse also noted that in Israel, the med-devices industry has taken off in part because it offers doctors a chance at IPO wealth.

And in the interest of disclosure, I'm a satisfied user of hair removal technologies. My grandmother (the same one in the rest home) made me get my eyebrows tamed years ago.

Hair removal "did wonders for my moustache," she said.