Can Technology Make You Healthier? – 9 Questions for Thomas Goetz

Thomas Goetz is the co-founder of the new health care company, Iodine, and the author of the new book, The Remedy: Robert Koch, Arthur Conan Doyle, and the Quest to Cure Tuberculosis. He was previously the executive editor at Wired, and has served as Entrepreneur in Residence at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. His previous book, The Decision Tree, was selected by the Wall Street Journal as one of the best health books of 2010. He holds a master of public health from the University of California, Berkeley. Born and raised in Minneapolis, Thomas lives in San Francisco with his wife and two boys.

1. Tell us about your new bookThe Remedy: Robert Koch, Arthur Conan Doyle, and the Quest to Cure Tuberculosis. Why is the average person going to want to read this book?

The Remedy is a true tale about two men of ambition and science who, through an odd quirk of fate, find themselves at odds. The stakes couldn’t be higher — the remedy might be the cure for the deadliest disease on earth. It’s a window into how ambition both fuels and complicates the quest to save lives.

2. You argue that medical science, as we know it, was really invented in the 19th century around the time of Sherlock Holmes.  Will we redefine the science of health again and if so, how?

Great question. The effort then was simply to come up with some things that work — to offer people *something* that can help them against disease. These days we have lots of things that work, but we fail to get these ideas and treatments to people. I think the great opportunity now is to help people before they get sick. But that gets into the hard problem of human behavior. Sometimes we just want to eat our Big Macs and damn the consequences.

3. What is the single most effective gadget that can help an average American get healthier?

The best gadget is probably our conscience — actually listening to that inner voice that knows what we should be doing. But sometimes it takes an external reminder to sell the case. I use the Nike Fuelband — though that may be not long for the world — because it both tracks movement *and* tells the time. I think anything that people will actually use, day to day, is promising. It takes a bit of trial and error to go through all the Fitbits and Jawbones and stuff till people will find the one for them.

4. Have you heard of any cool health gadgets on the drawing board?

I’m a fan of Scanadu — they’re making a home health monitor that will let us do some basic monitoring — heart rate, temperature and more — that could be very useful for families with kids, saving us trips to doctors office. They’re going through the FDA ropes right now.

5. What is the single most effective thing the average person can do to better their health?

Probably whatever one thing they’ll do, every day. For instance, I ride my bike to and from work every day. It not only gives me a half hour exercise, but it also purges my brain of stress after work. That’s a great one-two punch. Whether it’s taking a walk or going for a run or just doing pushups, one of the great things about simple routine exercise isn’t just the physical workout, but the mental pause.

6. The average American has the capability of living to about age 92. Do you see life expectancy rising dramatically? If so, how?

Lots of people are working on this, with the guys at Google doing Calico and Craig Venter launching his new company, Human Longevity, Inc. Personally, though, I’m less interested in life *extension* than I am in life *optimization* — I think we need to find ways to make people happier in their day to day lives, to feel more fulfilled and that they have a sense of purpose. And with that, longevity comes along for the ride.

7. In your book, The Decision Tree, you give readers a new way to think about taking control of their health, can you sum it up? Should we all be drawing our own Health Decision Tree?

The Decision Tree is about how ordinary people might tackle the complicated decisions we all face about our health, and how new technology and tools might help us navigate those decisions. On the one hand, this aligns with analog ideas like mindfulness, but it also opens the door to new sources of data and information that make things a bit more complicated. Generally, my sense is that people have the aptitude to think through their health more thoroughly than we give them credit for. But the tools that medicine typically provides don’t really take advantage of that capacity.

8. Tell us about what you’re working on now.

I’m building a new company called Iodine — we’re helping people make better decisions about the medications they take by combining clinical research with other users’ stories about their own experiences. It’s data combined with experience, and the idea is that we can help people understand why they’re experiencing things like side effects, and then help them decide what to do.

9. Can you give us a link to the best article you’ve read lately?

This is a terrific bit of data visualization about How Americans Die by Bloomberg. I don’t agree with every chart, but I was struck by the clarity of it. To me, it made the case that we need to care more about making people lead happy and fulfilled lives. 

Get your own copy of The Remedy on Amazon and find out more about Thomas Goetz at

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