The Digital Health Hippocratic Oath

Facebook's unprecedented, massive scale and social sharing tools have meant the tech company faces previously unheard of challenges when it comes to how to deal with its community, and that can get even more difficult when it comes to topics like suicide.

The company is hoping to use its unmatched reach and access to potentially prevent some tragedies with algorithmic detection and flagging of potentially suicidal intent expressed via posts. It's an effort that seems rooted in good intentions, but it also seems like a feature that could lead to all sorts of unintended consequences.

Three decades ago, a historian wrote six laws to explain society’s unease with the power and pervasiveness of technology. As we enter the next phase of digital health design, development and deployment, sick care digipreneurs should post them on their wall.

1. ‘Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral’ Most of us agree that we need a system to digitize health information. However, doing so can create more problems than it solves. Doing no harm is no different using health information technologies than prescribing potentially harmful or fatal drugs.

2. ‘Invention is the mother of necessity.’ One technological advance begets another. Technology drives innovation, not vice versa. However, while some think necessity is the mother of invention, it often leaves innovation orphaned.

3. ‘Technology comes in packages, big and small. History is replete with technological cycles and innovation that are of only historical interest compared to those that have made a major global impact like the 4th Industrial revolution we are experiencing now. Short term mindsets are too myopic to see the long term big picture.

4. ‘Although technology might be a prime element in many public issues, nontechnical factors take precedence in technology-policy decisions.’ Drucker cited seven sources of opportunity. Many of these drive technology-policy decisions, like changes in perceptions, meaning and mood of the times.

5. ‘All history is relevant, but the history of technology is the most relevant.’ The history of medicine is the history of technology, including its transformation from a cottage, sovereign profession to one controlled by corporate and government interests. Railroads, the automobile and the telephone changed the expectation that doctors would go to patients instead of patients coming to see doctors.

6. ‘Technology is a very human activity.’ The impact of technology is about what humans decide to do with it. Machine learning, clinical decision support, CRISPR, precision medicine and DIY medicine are forcing us to decide sooner than later.

Digital health entrepreneurs too often ignore the human and societal factors and unintended consequences of their technologies. Those that do should reserve a spot in the Museum of Digital Health.

Arlen Meyers, MD, MBA is the President and CEO of the Society of Physician Entrepreneurs