Column | Innovation and Disruption

Biohacking: What healthcare finance leaders need to know about this evolving enterprise

Column | Innovation and Disruption

Biohacking: What healthcare finance leaders need to know about this evolving enterprise


Patients have a new tool to better manage their health on their own. It’s called biohacking: Tracking, quantifying and managing the actions they are taking to promote their physical and mental health.

David Asprey, a well-known biohacker who created the supplement company Bulletproof, defines biohacking as “the art and science of changing the environment around you and inside you so that you have full control over your own biology.”a

An Evolution in Healthcare

As I was growing up in the '70s, when microwave meals had entered the mainstream American diet, the relationship of health to one’s food, environment and mental state was minimal. Sure, we were supposed to eat right (whatever that meant), and those with hypertension were supposed to have less salt (whatever that meant). At that time, drilling down to personalizing one’s health was not even in its embryonic stage. Fitness and exercise had begun to take hold to some extent. Think roller skates and Richard Simmons. But the ideas were rarely aligned with evidenced-based medicine. 

Also, in those days, physicians were gods. I remember our family recounting any doctors’ orders as gospel to be followed to the letter.

Since then, we have seen the patient-doctor relationship and trust begin to erode. Coverups, kickbacks and incentivization became big business, and prominent physicians became marketeers and spokespeople for drugs as well as snake oil. Some were innocent of intentional misinformation, but others were not.b

This schism grew, leading to the emergence of new avenues of healthcare guidance. Clinicians and non-clinicians alike began soapboxing miracle cures for a multitude of ailments, including promoting bleach-based tablets, among other items, as the remedy for infection.c

Biohacking enters the scene

This environment also saw the emergence of biohacking as a practical recourse for intelligent consumers to avoid the polarities of medical chicanery and public quackery and still take care of themselves. Biohacking is a phenomenon that has actual potential value to help providers manage the costs of care. Representing all walks of life, biohackers are truly invested in tracking, quantifying and effectively managing their physical and mental health.

The nature of biohacking

Biohacking has its inspiration in transhumanism, which advocates enhancing the human body and intelligence with technology (i.e., using technology to transcend the human body’s limitations). The concept may conjure up the mistaken notion of people implanting themselves with technology and becoming, in effect, cyborgs.

The reality is that biohackers often are educated consumers who take full advantage of technology, biosensors, biometrics and modalities to enhance human-electronic device communication. Some approaches may fall short of evidence-based practice or even be harmful, but some have proven beneficial.d

Biohacking is not limited to interfacing with electronic technology. Indeed, many gene houses offer genetic profiling for consumers to identify a means to live better. For example, knowing you carry a mutation in the methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase gene will prompt you to take greater concentrations of folic acid or also supplement with methylated folic acid, to decrease the risk of neural tube defects.e Otherwise, the foodstuffs, such as cereal and grain products, that have been fortified with a standard amount of folic acid may lose some effectiveness. 

Biohackers also monitor nutrient intake, caloric consumption, microbiome composition, eating and exercise habits along with mood and state of mind to optimize the art of living. While some physicians disdain biohackers, other medical advisories have embraced biohacking as an ally to managing their patients. The Integrative Healthcare Symposium provides a yearly forum for many physicians and healthcare providers to explore and understand modalities such as biohacking among other considerations that may fall outside the conventional allopathic realm.

In certain cases, much to the chagrin of healthcare providers, direct-to-consumer (DTC) entities will process a patient’s labs and send the results only to the patient; the physician receives the results only at the patient’s request. DTC labs are well utilized by biohackers who want to determine if their new diet, exercise program or way of life improves their cholesterol, thyroid hormones or other biometric outputs without the need to schedule a physician office visit.

Takeaways for healthcare finance leaders

So what conclusions should healthcare finance leaders draw from the biohacking trend? 

1. Biohacking is well on its way to becoming a significant component of the healthcare marketplace. By educating themselves about the enterprise through biohacking summits, forums and other educational resources, finance leaders can gain a working vocabulary in this discipline.

2. Biohacking patients tend to be well-educated. They therefore are apt to be receptive to offerings that improve their ability to make their own care management choices. The idea that patients should not be able to make their own healthcare decisions or independently order and evaluate their lab tests is as obsolete as bell-bottoms and zoot suits. 

3. It may be time to consider integrating select biohacking approaches in a healthcare organization’s continuity-of-care model. This strategy could help offset strained resources by more deeply involving the patient as a partner in health. Benefits might include reduced duplication of services as patients become more informed about care choices. Where appropriate, patients will recognize the olive branch being extended to them by the healthcare enterprise as they are invited to share in the management of the available healthcare resources. Such an approach could engender renewed patient trust in their healthcare provider, helping to improve and optimize their health and quality of life. 

Footnotes

a. Samuel, S., “How biohackers are trying to upgrade their brains, their bodies — and human nature,” Vox, Nov. 15, 2019.

b. Buchkowsky, S.S., and Jewesson, P.J., “Industry sponsorship and authorship of clinical trials over 20 years,” Annals of Pharmacotherapy, April 2004; and Amsterdam, J.D., McHenry, L.B. and Jureidini, J.N.,  “Industry-corrupted psychiatric trials,” Psychiatria Polska, Dec. 30, 2017.

c. Mahtre, A., “Tales from the annals of medical quackery,” CBS Sunday Morning, April 26, 2020; and FDA, “Fraudulent coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) products,” July 28, 2020.

d. Shinde, S., and Meller-Herbert O., “Biohacking,” Anaesthesia, June 12, 2017.

About the Author

Martin H. Bluth, MD, PhD,

is the founder of Bluth Bio Industries, chief of transfusion medicine, assistant director of laboratories and director of translational research for the department of pathology at Maimonides Medical Center, professor of pathology at Wayne State University School of Medicine, laboratory director for Accutox Medical Diagnostic and global medical director for Kids Kicking Cancer. 

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