Let Me Put You On Hold While I Get This EKG
By Michael Schrage

(FORTUNE Magazine) – Two hours after too much Vindaloo chicken and beer at lunch, the chest still feels oddly tight. The fingers of the left hand tingle slightly. That sharp shooting pain above the diaphragm has subsided. Is it a wicked case of indigestion or something else? A stubborn 15 extra pounds and a family history of stroke adds to the concern. Should someone call 911, or is it smarter to pop another antacid and wait? Play it safe or play it cool?

That decision would be far easier if the office first-aid kit contained a digital sensor band that could be pressed on the chest and plugged into the office WAN. This virtual EKG attachment would transmit vital signs to an off-site machine programmed to alert a paramedic dispatch unit to any troubling rhythms. The right piece of technology promotes peace of mind.

Or how about a wired disposable blood sensor pad? A pinprick's worth of blood on the networked reagent is remotely analyzed by a lab for enzymes indicating dead or dying heart tissue. While these heartware examples are fictional, their future is not. The technologies of remote medical diagnostics are becoming faster, better, cheaper, and more available. And real technologies are more likely to enter the workplace in volume before they enter the home. Technology will never turn executive suites into ERs, but it will bring just-in-time medical testing to the corporate desktop. Tomorrow's wired--and wireless--workplaces will become as well equipped to transport digitized diagnostics as they are for handling e-mail, voice, and multimedia attachments. Indeed, it will be a crime if they don't.

If American Airlines, for example, can make defibrillators standard medical equipment on its big passenger jets, you can be sure that high-stress office complexes will think about their own investments in on-site medical equipment for employees. There's an economic as well as a humanitarian incentive. Having people leave work to go to emergency rooms for minor ailments is expensive. Having employees "tough it out" and ignore critical symptoms is tragic. If current trends continue, the benefits of on-site remote diagnostics increasingly outweigh the costs. Not having remote diagnostic access will seem as stupid and self-destructive as not being able to dial 911 from a cell phone. A workplace without a digital diagnostics infrastructure will rightly be considered unsafe.

In fact, there's no inherent reason that remote diagnostic technologies can't become as ubiquitous as Band-Aids and aspirin in the corporate infirmary. As costs decline and the ability to remotely process test results improves, HMOs and insurance companies will encourage businesses to bring networked diagnostics on-site. Why not save lives while saving money? If there's any doubt, then off to the hospital we go. But if the blood test, urine sample, or EKG reveals no sign of disease, everyone can literally breathe easier.

There are other ways that medical technologies will accelerate into the managerial mainstream. Organizations worldwide have already seen how ergonomic analysis has led to redesigned keyboards and headsets for their employees. Enterprises increasingly monitor how swiftly--or slowly--their workers perform their assigned tasks. Needless to say, this kind of monitoring can dramatically increase employee stress levels. But how much stress is too much? How do we know? Which employees are at risk? It's only a matter of time before regulation, litigation, or experimentation requires firms worldwide to monitor the stress levels of their employees. Productivity and health-care technologies will become entwined. The same biometric eye-tracking technology that monitors how intensively people are peering into their video screens can also be used to measure fatigue.

Productivity-based medical diagnostics stops at the executive suite--right where diagnostic perks kick in. It's becoming increasingly popular for people of means to shell out anywhere from $800 to $2,000 for full-body scans to detect tumors or abnormalities in their earliest possible stages. Legitimate medical disagreements have arisen over just how valuable the scans are. However, no one doubts that the software for better analysis of scan results is dramatically improving each year. Soon the corporate scanner will become as much an executive goody as the corporate apartment and corporate jet. Just as companies lease jets to top execs, so they will they lease NetScanners.

Regardless of the future of HMOs or federal health-care reform, the ongoing explosion in medical technology innovation effectively ensures that employers will become more actively involved on-site with their employees' well-being. Call it a perk, call it a precaution, call it bowing to the inevitable, tomorrow's reality dictates that an ounce of diagnostics may indeed save a pound of cure.

MICHAEL SCHRAGE is co-director of the MIT Media Lab's e-markets initiative and author of Serious Play. Reach him at michael_schrage@fortunemail.com.