Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Medical fiber (not oatmeal)

Both the Advocate and the Advertiser carried stories reviewing last night's AOC Fiber for the Future show which focused on the enhancements that fiber would bring to the local practice of medicine. I watched it too. Not dramatic TV, but interesting nonetheless.

Medicine makes an interesting case study--you can see, after listening to the presenters from Southwest Medical Center, just how a fiber optic network might benefit medicine and by extension how such a network might benefit most professions. And the way it would benefit medicine is mostly by piling up a lot of small advantages to make going to and being a doctor a different and better experience.

I think there's a tendency among advocates of fiber to think of its benefits in terms of "the big win:" some sort of large chunk of new or expanded industry. Something like the SGI talks heard rumored on the floor of TechSouth or a rapid take-off of a video gaming/animation hub in Lafayette. That's all good --but the truth is that you can only increase your odds of such a big win occurring. And while we are doing a good job of shortening the odds, it's a gamble. A gamble worth taking, even for a fellow like me who never learned to play bourré worth a damn. Famously we play the odds here in South Louisiana, not only in cards and horses, but also, you may recall, in oil and gas, to our individual and communal advantage. We dignify that daring these days by dressing it up as entrepreneurship. But we know that's not something you can count on; only something worth taking a shot on.

So while we prepare to make that big win possible it's also true that fiber brings quieter benefits, benefits that while less dramatic in some ways, are certainly more certain. The difference it can make in the practice of the professions is relatively subtle -- though it seems dramatic to participants, as the panelists on last night's AOC show struggled to communicate. My honest guess is that the vast majority of the value of a fiber-optic network will be not in the few big ticket wins but in the myriad little advantages that make life better for us all.

The case study of medicine, as mentioned, is instructive. I abstracted three points from my reading of the stories and my own viewing: Greater Capacity, Attractiveness, and Security.

By far the majority of advantage of fiber for medicine seems to flow from its greater capacity, as you might expect. Things which used to be practically impossible are made possible but difficult by today's infrastructure. Fiber would make things like hi-resolution diagnostic scans and 3-D imaging much more practical. It would be easy, trivially easy, to shuffle the data around with fiber. Without fiber, it's back, literally, to pony express: a courier has to pick up the scans and run them across town. Some scans, like three-dimensional scans driven by specialized software, might simply not run on local computers and the physician might have to go down to the hospital to view it interactively--to turn the image to see that little spot behind your heart. With fiber he or she could simply slave a local monitor to the hospital's system and quickly review those crucial records during a checkup. Without fiber the doctor simply wouldn't bother... This small thing would be repeated throughout the practice of medicince.

But fiber would also make our community more attractive to practitioners. We all know that doctors and medical professionals of all sorts are simply in short supply. They can pretty much choose where they want to live. And for most, it's a matter of balancing the demands of family life and the demands of professional life. You want to live in a place your family likes and will be happy, safe, and comfortable. And, as a professional, you want to live in a place that has all the best tools and makes using those tools easy. Lafayette could easily become a place in which little compromise would need to be made. Festival International and fiber-based high tech imaging in your inexpensive store-front office? Who needs Houston? The payoff for you? More good, happy, doctors of the sort who value their practices and their families. Can I ever quantify that? No. It won't be like a new underwear plant moving to town. But my guess is that it will be much more valuable in the long run.

The third big issue was security. The panelists were insistent that new patient rights and privacy laws made secure communications paramount--to the extent that if they cannot feel assured a transmission is secure, the standard is to not transmit at all. And in the medical field that decision can have life-threatening consequences. For the participants it was clear that fiber was the technology of choice for data security. There are simple, physical reasons for this as well as reasons related to the huge size of the data pipe and the maturity of the technology. But suffice it to say, they are right: If your medical records are going to fly around town you want it done on fiber.

So fiber is good for medicine. The thing is, it's good for all the professions for much the same reasons. Security will be less of an issue for most, but the other rationales apply in full force. Everything from architecture to land management to geology is becoming more and more dominated by huge data sets and large, dynamic imaging tools. A great architect wants access to great tools and the means by which to communicate the results in a meaningful way. And they want a good place to raise a family and events like Festival International to enjoy with them.

It's not the big win that will be the best thing for Lafayette should it come. It will be all the little wins with small-firm professionals and entrepreneurs that will add up to our big win....

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