Medical information to the people: on Theranos’ mission to bridge the gap between people and healthcare

“I believe that the individual is the answer to the challenges of healthcare.” With these words, Elizabeth Holmes, CEO of Theranos, opened the 2014 TEDMED conference in San Francisco, California—a spinoff featuring TED Talks focused on medicine and healthcare. Theranos, the company Holmes founded  as a 19 year-old Stanford dropout, seeks to address   the deficiencies of our current model of healthcare. Presently, a diagnosis made by a physician is contingent upon traditional lab tests that are often excruciatingly painful and vastly unaffordable for many.

To avoid understating the importance of these lab tests, in her talk, Holmes cites the statistic that information from the lab drives “70 to 80 percent of clinical decisions.” Holmes’ basic philosophy is that health information is a basic human right, and that individuals have the right to “engage” with information about their health. Her vision is to employ Theranos’ innovative blood-testing technology (which uses the blood from the pinprick of a finger) in easy-to-access drugstores and lab facilities across the country, and to make those blood tests more affordable than, say, lunch at a café (according to the Theranos website, a test for insulin costs only $7.86), so that individuals will take the  initiative to have these blood tests done sooner rather than later.

Despite the recent issues that have cropped up regarding the accuracy and transparency of Theranos’ own blood testing technology, the basic problems in healthcare that Theranos tries to address are still relevant, given that the United States spent  $3.8  trillion on healthcare in 2014.  Lab  tests, important as they are, are a pain, and far too expensive for the average American (they can range from a couple hundred to thousands of dollars).

Let’s not forget that needles are also pretty scary for most patients. However, if a lab test is done too late (or not at all), the delayed diagnosis can make all    the difference in prognosis. It can make the difference between having a plethora of treatment choices and a good chance of recovery, to having few choices or none at all, along with little hope of getting better. A key buzzword from Holmes’ talk at TEDMED was “actionable healthcare information”—information that, given at the right time and place, can potentially save someone’s life.

This past summer, when I was getting the requisite vaccines for my summer study abroad trip to Mexico, my pediatrician also ordered me to get a blood test to check my cholesterol level.   Knowing that the test would cost a hefty amount out-of-pocket and that I would have   to make a separate trek out to the diagnostic center, I deferred the blood test. For someone  who is young and in good health, such as myself, the decision was easy; I didn’t lose any sleep  by choosing to delay the test. For someone has a history of risk factors associated with high cholesterol, delaying such a blood test may very well have serious consequences down the line.

At its core, Theranos is trying to streamline the laborious and stressful lab testing model, while simultaneously connecting people to information about their own health, which will ideally lead to better health outcomes. Only time will tell whether Theranos is able to live up to its goal of bringing people closer to their healthcare.