The Future Is Non-Binary: How Technology and Culture Can Make Health More Human

by | Jul 8, 2024

As our conceptions of identity and gender evolve, so too does the dialogue around health and healthcare. But right now, that dialogue is not moving fast enough. 

“Healthcare is not keeping pace with societal changes,” pulmonary critical care physician Cedric “Jamie” Rutland said in a panel hosted at the Infillion Café at this year’s Cannes Lions, hosted by Havas Health Network. “People are feeling marginalized, and the overall quality of care has diminished. The issues will only become more complex over time.” According to Genesis Research Group, 41% of non-binary adults report poor health, while 64% worry about negative judgment and being treated poorly by the health care system. 

As the healthcare industry – and the companies that support it – increasingly move to digital and always-on, how can this problem be addressed? Rutland was joined on the Havas-hosted panel by Amanda Ralston, founder of NonBinary Solutions and Oodaye Shukla, Chief Data Officer at Havas Health Network, moderated by Brian Robinson, Global Chief Strategy Officer at Havas Health Network.  These industry experts dug into what the intersection of tech, culture, and health looks like, offering insights into why a non-binary approach is imperative for the future of healthcare and the well-being of patients.  


Binary Thinking: A Barrier to Comprehensive Care

The panel unanimously agreed that traditional binary thinking—viewing issues in black-and-white terms—is inadequate for any aspect of today’s diverse society. “Generally, binary thinking is the notion that there are only two sides to some issue and that you have to pick one,” said Amanda Ralston. “But there are shades of gray; Binary thinking restricts our ability to see the full spectrum of an individual’s identity. For instance, Ralston added, “People on the autism spectrum are six times more likely to not identify with the gender they were assigned to birth.” 

Jamie Rutland emphasized the practical consequences of such limited perspectives, highlighting the reluctance of non-binary individuals to seek care for fear of judgment. He highlighted the necessity for training healthcare providers to understand and communicate effectively about the complexities of human health.

The repercussions over the fear of being judged, Rutland added, is that there may be fewer options for care because patients will avoid certain clinics. “It’s clear that a lot of physicians are not comfortable caring for that group, and the population actually feels this.”  

“We have to be more non-binary because when you actually look at medicine as a whole or even disease as a whole, disease is just as gray…we have to be able to spend the time talking to people, understanding where they’re coming from so that we can better understand their environment, which is really what impacts their risk of developing certain conditions.” 

Part of the solution is learning how to communicate – and that onus is on healthcare marketers, not just physicians. They have to know who they’re talking to, and reach them in a way that’s meaningful and builds trust. That’s where data comes in.  


The Crucial Role of Purposeful Data 

While there is considerable data about patients and physicians available to healthcare providers and marketers, the question is, is it purposefully collected? Why is the data collected, how is it collected, and what is it used for? Oodaye Shukla, Chief Data Officer at Havas Health Network, emphasized this and reminded the audience “The challenge is not just collecting data, but ensuring it represents all demographics equitably.”  In the U.S., for instance, healthcare data is often collected for claims to get healthcare providers paid, while in Europe the data is used to diagnose conditions or diseases. Those nuances can mean discrepancies from one region to the next. This means that data must be viewed through the correct lens to be truly valuable.  

“We are in the midst of one of the most significant periods of scientific advancement – more data and more innovation from a healthcare perspective than we have ever seen, and it’s only accelerating,” Shukla explained. However, he cautioned that without careful consideration, this could result in bad data building on more bad data, ultimately undermining the potential benefits of these advancements.


AI and Healthcare: A Double-Edged Sword  

While AI holds the potential to ingest an enormous amount of scientific or health-related content, and produce actionable analyses in record time, biases still exist. Training data must be used to create unbiased and purposeful data to guide language models. The data must be curated and reviewed, rather than attempting to train a model on mass amounts of information that aren’t all relevant to the situation at hand. Moreover, a company’s AI advisory council should be composed of members from a diverse set of backgrounds to avoid bias. In addition, an independent body should review these models, understanding what’s in the data and how it’s being used.

“AI can be transformative if trained on unbiased, comprehensive data sets,” said Rutland. However, he warned: “Without careful oversight, AI might reinforce existing prejudices rather than eliminate them.”

Shukla added, “Today, training data is gold. You have to be able to create really unbiased, valued, purposeful training data to train your large language models, then they become useful.” 

But it’s crucial to also keep the human – the patient – centered at all times. When you look at medicine and the way medicine is developed, it’s traditionally done with clinical trials. And clinical trials tend to be extremely binary, said Jamie Rutland. Practitioners themselves often think more broadly, though.”We still think gray when you read our notes. Our notes have a paragraph of what the patient is going through and why the patient’s going through this and what we believe instead of being binary. And I think we’re moving towards that.” Procedure and treatment codes add another layer of data complexity.  


How to Drive Change with Culture & Technology 

The consensus among the panelists was that healthcare needs a significant cultural and technological overhaul to truly serve a diverse population. “We must challenge the outdated methods that still define much of our medical practices,” Ralston urged.

Medicine and care of patients has been defined by processes that were developed 50 to 70 years ago. As discussed during the panel, the medical and scientific community needs to reconsider not only these processes, but also its ingrained biases that are negatively impacting patients, especially those from marginalized communities. But this change can happen where a diverse understanding of human cultures and backgrounds is met with the unprecedented power of data and AI. Without seeing the “gray” of people’s lives, the medical and scientific community will continue to be limited by binary limitations and perceptions. As society continues to evolve, so too must our healthcare systems, ensuring that every individual is seen, understood, and cared for—not as a category, but as a spectrum of unique identities.

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