Cyborgs – Moving From Science Fiction to Science Fact

By: Garrick Hunt

The word “cybernetics” tends to invoke images of Robocop or The Million Dollar Man.  These examples are just the creation of the imagination, but how far away are we really from such technological and biological advancements?

The answer is that it has already begun. While we don’t have 7-foot-tall walking cyborgs that administer swift justice in some kind of post-apocalyptic nightmare world, we are seeing advancements in the realm of prosthetic limbs, ocular augmentation, and even artificially grown organs.

While I was recently traveling, I picked up a National Geographic which had an amazing article on the future of human evolution and how humans are beginning to influence biological advancements. The article discussed a man, who was born colorblind and underwent a procedure that implanted a device (a sort of antenna) at the back of his head. This device can interpret the ultraviolet (UV) light spectrum and infrared (IR) spectrum, then convert these light waves into sound that feeds to his brain and allows him to “hear” color. Technology is helping this man use synesthesia, often considered a disorder of sorts, to his advantage.  What could this mean for the future of healthcare?  Who would be responsible for the costs of such augmentations? What would be the medical standards and indications of such an adventurous advancement?

Implants, like the one described above, offers a glimpse of the future.  While all of this seems a little farfetched, I would argue that no one anticipated George Klein’s electric wheelchair in the early twentieth century nor the profound change it would cause in our industry and in the lives of so many people. No one thought that anyone would be able to afford one, and now I can buy one on eBay for a cool $700, cheaper than a road bike.

The initial shock of new technology will always be a cost concern.  For example, exoskeletons, like those being developed for the military to  increase  lifting power and allow the wearer to walk and run long distances without becoming fatigued, are currently very much cost-prohibitive, yet these  devices are also being developed for paraplegics to utilize in the civilian sector. The ReWalk is one such exoskeleton that has been FDA approved, and at a price point of $70,000, it poses a high cost barrier that most people could never afford on their own. This means benefit plans may be on the hook for this new bill and others like it. Now, if a healthy individual wants to squander their savings to purchase an exoskeleton and pretend to be Ironman, then all the power to them – but what about someone who needs it?

It’s not just exoskeletons; many prosthetic limbs can cost up to $50,000 in the current market.  Throw in a few computer chips and motherboards that allow for advanced articulation and a wide range of movement, and we could be looking at a hefty $100,000 price tag for that prosthesis. It seems likely that early medical applications of new technologies would bring with them medical indications for periodic maintenance, upgrades, or replacement… on the health plan’s dime.

There are three major ways a health plan can address this emerging technology; all three stem from solid plan language. First, a plan should assure it has the ability to review invoices against some sort of cost standard. Ensuring that the plan includes language indicating that alternating pricing, at the Plan Administrator’s discretion, will be applied when a particular medical device exceeds the set standards will help ensure that the plan has secured its right to properly utilize such standards. Secondly, a plan should including language that grants the plan the ability to suggest to the member a more cost-effective treatment option so long as it does not reduce the quality of treatment – and if the member foregoes that suggestion, the plan should ideally retain the right to limit its payment for the chosen service to the price of the lower-cost service that the member has chosen to forego. This means that while the plan will cover treatment for medical device, it will only do so up to a reasonable cost limit, and members are encouraged to not be extravagant simply because their OOP amount is the same either way.  Finally, a plan must include strong “experimental and investigational” language, ensuring that the procedure is FDA approved, has been adequately tested, and is actual applied science rather than still science fiction.

It will still be many years before we see a proper medical cyborg, but this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t prepare for costs now…