Editor’s Note: This article is written by Robert Chen, an EPX independent researcher and a second year medical student at the Washington University School of Medicine. Robert is passionate about behavioral and mental health and has been leading the research effort on behavioral interventions in the EPX Research Center @WUSTL. He also runs a project called Memento which aims to simplify the clinic intake process for patients with Alzheimer’s.
You wake up to your smartphone alarm’s electronic chiming, an annoying symphony of crescendo-decrescendos that seem to be engineered to infuriate even a trained zen monk. Still groggy, you find the home button with your thumb and authenticate a finger-print snooze – just 10 more minutes. What feels like seconds later, the chiming is back, this time louder than before. Fine, you win – smart phone: 1, you: 0. You turn the alarm off and unplug your smart watch, the backing still warm from charging overnight. Still fastening the silicone straps, you voice-activate your computer and check your calendar. Only two meetings today – and mom’s birthday! It’s going to be a great day.
Welcome to Generation Z. Technology now permeates our daily lives in ways that a few decades ago seemed like wizardry. Instantaneous communication, machine 3D-printed homes, and artificial organs are rapidly replacing mail couriers, human labor, and 35-year life expectancies. It’s easy to place our faith in technology to solve humankind’s problems. But it’s just as easy to get “lost in the sauce” (as one Gucci Mane had put it). Messaging notifications interrupt meditative conversations with friends and family. Internet searches trump searches for sunrises. Where efficiency, productivity, and solutions have soared, appreciation of the little things have suffered. With technology intertwined with our daily lives, how do we find meaning in an increasingly digital age?
In a medical-focused startup, the answer to this question always comes back to good health. Good health empowers people to spend their time realizing their purpose – whatever their purpose may be. Our goal is to do this with as little interference in their lives as possible. But the caveats of an increasingly tech-savvy society cannot be ignored. If we could help people realize their goals, is digital even the right medium in which to proceed?
Technology, like good health, enables. It enables people to transcribe visions onto the scroll of reality. It gives people new perspective on what is possible – and what could be possible soon. Technology will continue to burrow into our daily lives because it contains the possibility of elevating the potential of human beings. Our onus reminds us to leverage innovations of the digital age toward goals that move society’s needle forward. Rather than lose meaning, we can focus technology to magnify meaning. The risk of losing ourselves in a maelstrom of instant gratification succumbs to the impact we can make with responsible innovation. It is why we continue to meld medicine and technology to improve people’s health.
Let’s return to our buzzing smartphone and ask: how much can we move the needle with just a text message? Consider Jenny, a 14-year old high school student. Her friends consider her the circle’s glue, keeping the crew together even when the fringes threaten to rupture. They feel the radiance of Jenny’s smile whenever they go out for dinner. Jenny’s mother knows better – that Jenny is suffering from unipolar depression. But only Jenny knows that she wants to end her life. Not even Jenny’s case manager knows. Two weeks after Jenny is enrolled in Epharmix’s depression system, Jenny reports feeling suicidal ideation. The system catches it near-instantaneously, flags her case manager, and her case manager takes appropriate measures and saves Jenny’s life – crisis averted, and the needle leaps forward.
Within the walls of the tiny conference room where I meet with other behavior researchers every Sunday, we think about Jenny and how we can make her story into everyone’s story. Our phones are now ubiquitous- a symbol of Generation Z. In our daily conversations, we respond to our friends with the latest memes, GIFs, and emojis. But we sometimes forget just how far we’ve come with something like a simple text, and how much farther we can take it. These medical victories remind us why building essential technology brings meaning to our day-to-day lives. They also bring reason for a beer or two – just remember to innovate responsibly.