The Era of DTC Diagnostics, Diagnosis and Drug Development Is Here

Givi Topchishvili, founder and president of the 9.8 Group
Givi Topchishvili, founder and president of the 9.8 Group

23andMe, the direct-to-consumer genetic testing and screening service, analyzes some health risks based on personal genetics. And that may change the healthcare industry in ways no one is expecting.

After years of back-and-forth with the FDA, the company now has permission to resume marketing and selling a limited version of its breakthrough product.

That's probably good news for health-curious and health-conscious customers (or at least those in the US since 23andMe has been offering the service in Canada and Great Britain all along). Getting its health-screening products back on the market is also good news for the company, which, despite more than $240 million in investments, has yet to turn a profit.

But it's bigger news for the future of the healthcare industry.

23andMe has pioneered a new health service business that could serve as an early working prototype for the entire medical industry over the next few years. Despite conventional wisdom that the 23andMe business breakthrough is the direct-to-consumer model, it's also the consolidation of genetic testing, diagnosis and drug development that has the potential to change the industry.

In the current system, one of the weakest links in the diagnosis and treatment processes is the need to send medical samples to labs. The process is time-consuming and expensive. Moreover, this type of lab testing has only been initiated when a patient seeks medical care—it's seldom been ongoing or preventative.

Instead, 23andMe has made and marketed a testing product and service that can be both seamless and continuous. And the support of those in the healthcare industry that invest in innovations—the aforementioned $240 million in investment without a profit—clearly signals that 23andMe may be onto something more than a novel, and perhaps eventually profit-making, business.

The levels of investment and interest are strong indicators that changes in healthcare business models may be imminent.  

Investors see a future where the 23andMe model of collecting personal health information and sending it directly to researchers and healthcare providers is ubiquitous. As the makers of wearable devices increase their ability to monitor and transmit live data on physical well-being, the distance between a smartwatch and a clinical diagnosis and treatment may be reduced to near zero.

Smart refrigerators can already sense when you're running low on milk or eggs and add them to your upcoming online grocery order. Big real-time data and artificial intelligence applications are also already making their way to market in other areas. Just this month Tesla announced it will use Autopilot, a computer-driving service, in its cars. And Google is putting big data and AI to work in RankBrain, which aims to answer ambiguous or confusing online queries.

It's no leap to understand that, soon, personal, wearable tech will be able to do things such as sense an increase in blood pressure or an oncoming flu and order medicine. This will happen in the same way that a diabetic patient will be able to adjust the dosage of his or her medication based on the blood sugar levels showing up on a mobile device.

In each case, the mobile technology will send the results to a lab, which will analyze the patterns using AI technologies and produce a recommendation. That recommendation will then be sent to a physician, who will have access to all the patient's medical records in a secure medical cloud and, once approved, the medicine will be shipped for next-day delivery. Amazon may even deliver the medication by drone or an Uber driver may drop it off in less than an hour.

This new pattern of data collection, deep analysis and conclusion and nearly instant fulfillment will impact just about every industry. And while it may make Internet research more efficient, it will transform what we think of as healthcare—making an entire industry faster, more efficient and more preventative instead of reactive.

That's what 23andMe has really hit on.

Givi Topchishvili is founder and president of the 9.8 Group.