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Is biophotonics the key to lower health care costs?

Jul 2011
Karen A. Newman

Escalating health care costs are a global concern, and federal governments are working hard to rein in spending and fend off further fiscal calamity. The answers are sure to come from a collaborative exchange among experts in many fields – and biophotonics certainly has a big role to play.

The launch earlier this year of the Center for Biophotonic Sensors & Systems (CBSS) created an opportunity to put that notion to the test. “The ultimate goal of the center is to use photonics as a driver for early disease detection, reduction of health care costs, speedier and more effective treatment through personalized care, and better patient outcomes,” said Boston University’s Thomas Bifano, first director of the CBSS, as reported in the May/June issue of BioPhotonics.

To better understand how the CBSS and biophotonics can help solve one of the thorniest issues of our time, we sought answers from Bifano, and he put us in touch with Thomas J. Dudley of the Boston University Photonics Center. Dudley’s thoughts on the issue can be found in this month’s Viewpoint, “Biophotonics Research, Collaboration Can Lower Health Care Costs,” beginning on page 12.

Dudley believes that the biophotonics industry can contribute to controlling health care spending. That contribution can come, he said, in the form of better technology or instrument standardization, both of which can enable lower health care expenses.

“As support for health care becomes a priority in the federal spending debate, critics are voicing concerns about the sustainability of this spending,” he said. “Initiatives such as the National Science Foundation’s Industry/University Cooperative Research Centers (I/UCRC) provide a generic mechanism for identifying industry challenges and matching university research efforts that can serve as a solution.

“The newest I/UCRC, the Center for Biophotonic Sensors & Systems, will create an environment that directs research at industry-identified challenges in the health care sector.”

The I/UCRC’s ambitious goals for ameliorating an epic problem of our time call for collaboration on an equally Homeric scale. Fortunately, a strong sense of cooperation seems to be written into scientists’ DNA, as we were reminded by readers who wrote in reply to my column, also in the May/June issue, asking for thoughts on finding a home for Frank Andres’ and others’ observations so they are not lost.

“Posting of the observations of astute people and bringing attention to ideas for ideas’ sake is the cornerstone of a scientific community,” said Guillermo Lugo of San Antonio in a letter to the editor, found on page 10 in this issue.

Dr. E. Dinesh Pillai of Singapore also weighed in on the topic, saying, “Sometimes all we have is the ‘observation.’ But we also know that someone out there holds the ideas and talents needed to explain our set of observations.” Be sure to read these letters, and I hope to hear from you, too, if you have ideas of your own.

In a final note on the topic of good observation, Hugh Coleman of Spokane, Wash., wrote that as a young boy he was told, “They are not going to let you do anything. Just watch, and eventually you will be in a good position to contribute.”

Many years later, as an airline pilot, Coleman was able to put that challenge – and his good observation skills – to the test, landing a plane safely in dangerous conditions because he saw an opening where others did not.

Coleman’s story is dramatic but does underscore the crucial need for careful observation. Your work may not put you in a position to save lives, but it could – especially if you work in biophotonics.

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