What the future holds for healthcare is a question that concerns a handful of actors, including doctors, healthcare institutions, patient organizations, medical schools, and pharma companies. It is also a question that has arguably become more relevant due to the pandemic and its long-term implications. Stating that the future of healthcare will be filled with technological innovations is not a revelation: 3D printed drugs and prosthetics, artificial intelligence, big data, and virtual reality are some examples of what promises to be an exciting ride for healthcare professionals and patients.

However, as social scientists and designers, we believe healthcare is complex and a human process to be reduced to a series of technological breakthroughs. Our invitation is to challenge the romantic notion of a high-tech future, or the uncritical perception that technology “is always assumed to be good and capable of solving any problem,” as designers Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby put it. (1)

If pharma companies and other relevant actors want to be prepared to face future healthcare challenges, they must certainly consider other factors beyond technological innovation. In this article, we describe a factor that has become increasingly present in our ethnographic findings, one that is very different (or, arguably, even opposite) to the high-tech scenario: the relevance and resurgence of non-medical, non-scientific knowledge and medical practices and their role in healthcare.

These are some examples of future high-tech healthcare services found in television: Baymax, the friendly nurse robot from Disney’s Big Hero 6, a diagnosis tool that allows doctors to feel what the patient is feeling seen in a Black Mirror Episode, and the birth of Luke and Leia Skywalker in The Revenge of the Sith, in which Padmé is assisted by a robot in a room surrounded by screens. In these examples, there is no evidence of alternatives to the high-tech healthcare imaginary.

Scientific, medical knowledge won’t be enough for empowered patients.

It is no secret that patients and caretakers are now more informed and thus more empowered. We believe that, due to this empowerment, healthcare professionals and other actors will have no choice but to respect and accept experiential and non-expert knowledge and medical practice, which have historically been discredited or disregarded in the face of scientific medical knowledge.

An impressive example of this is an open-sourced, do-it-yourself (DIY) artificial pancreas system developed by the diabetes community in 2013. The goal of its creators was “to augment continuous glucose monitor (CGM) alerts, which aren’t loud enough to wake up heavy sleepers, but can alert a loved one if the patient is not responding”. (2)

The DIY pancreas was approved in 2020 by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, two years after the pancreas was made publicly available. (3)

By non-expert knowledge we also refer to ancestral and local knowledge, which are quite relevant in ethnically and racially diverse contexts such as Latin American countries (where we’ve had the pleasure to conduct ethnographic research).

For example, in 2020, researchers at Complutense University of Madrid found that an ingredient present in ayahuasca, a tea used among the Amazonian indigenous community, had “therapeutic potential for a wide range of psychiatric and neurological disorders, among which are neurodegenerative diseases.” (4)

Perhaps a less extreme but as equally revealing example, is what one of Colombia’s most reputed geriatricians told us while we were conducting an Alzheimer’s research study: he was impressed by all the “non-medical strategies” he came across when he met with his patient’s caretakers (“I wonder if these women know they could basically stand in front of a crowd and lecture them”). The lesson here is that these local, non-experts’ knowledge shouldn’t be entirely displaced by medical knowledge. As patients and caretakers become more empowered and more willing to participate in decision-making processes, we should envision a future in which these two types of knowledges are combined for better healthcare system.

What this means for pharma.

Pharma companies are key promoters of technological progress in healthcare, but we believe these companies should ask themselves the following questions related to what we’ve discussed in this article:

  1. What if pharma companies work with healthcare professionals to develop the mindset and “soft” skills required to respect and accept patients’ and caretakers’ non-expert knowledge and practices? This is essential for a future scenario characterized not just by tech but also by empowered and eager participation in communities.
  2. What if pharma companies enable and connect patient communities to encourage solutions like the DIY pancreas system mentioned above? Just as designer Ezio Manzini once suggested we are all designers (5), we suggest that patients and caretakers become active agents whose problem-solving capacities are sparked and nurtured.
  3. What if pharma companies orchestrate radical co-creation processes by bringing diverse, interdisciplinary actors into the healthcare conversation? Once we acknowledge and appreciate the knowledge that goes beyond the strictly medical, we understand why it might be important and productive to involve unexpected actors, such as financial institutions, schoolteachers and food and beverage companies, to name a few.

We realize these questions might not be the most intuitive for a pharma, but in A Piece of Pie we thrive on seeing things differently. We are prepared to support and work with pharma companies interested in navigating the future of healthcare, a future we now know holds so much more besides technological innovation. Do not hesitate to reach out to us at info@piecepie.com!


[1] https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/speculative-everything
[2] https://diyps.org/2014/06/20/what-is-diyps-do-it-yourself-pancreas-system/
[3] https://newsroom.uvahealth.com/2020/01/02/fda-approves-uva-developed-artificial-pancreas/#:~:text=The%20U.S.%20Food%20and%20Drug,and%20regulates%20blood%20glucose%20levels.
[4] https://www.nature.com/articles/s41398-020-01011-0?utm_medium=affiliate&utm_source=commission_junction&utm_campaign=3_nsn6445_deeplink_PID100093539&utm_content=deeplink
[5] https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/design-when-everybody-designs