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What Does the Development of Windmill Technology in Medieval Europe Say about Population Health IT?

May 26, 2015
by Mark Hagland
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It’s fascinating how advances in technology can intersect with social change and societal progress in a very iterative way. Certainly, history is filled with great examples of such iterative processes, from the invention of the printing press to the development of the steam engine, to the creation of the earliest automobiles.

Recently, I’ve been reading a fascinating book, The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World of Crisis, published in 2009 by the well-known author Jeremy Rifkin, whose previous books, including Beyond Beef, Voting Green, and The End of Work, have proven so thought-provoking. The Empathic Civilization is extremely broad in its scope, and packed with many ideas about the evolution of society and the growth of global consciousness. Here, I’m just going to take one tiny snippet of one chapter and connect those points to something going on right now in U.S. healthcare.

In his chapter “The Soft Industrial Revolution of the Late Medieval Era and the Birth of Humanism,” Rifkin writes this: “With watermills situated in virtually every available place along rivers and streams across much of Europe, attention turned to the idea of harnessing wind to perform similar functions. The first European windmill was installed in Yorkshire, England, in 1185. Over the next several hundred years, windmills spread across the great plains of northern Europe, becoming a ubiquitous feature of the landscape… Part of the appeal of windmill technology was its free access. Generally the lords’ estates encompassed the best water resources. Windmills, however, could be erected anywhere, and the wind is essentially free and unencumbered by the property rights attached to water resources.”

In fact, the harnessing of wind technology through the proliferation of windmills led to the beginnings of some more modern processes that eventually went industrial, Rifkin goes on to write in that chapter. But it is particularly interesting that windmill technology’s harnessing of the energy from air, essentially a free form of energy, also contributed indirectly to economic democratization, as it began to decentralize one form of power away from the control of medieval manor lords.

Early on in the development of any new technology, it can be very difficult to see the ways that technology’s adoption and spread might change existing patterns in society. Reading that chapter in Rifkin’s book made me think of where U.S. healthcare is right now in terms of developing data analytics to support population health management. No, we aren’t living in the Late Middle Ages in Europe and trying to figure out how most efficiently to grind our grain for use as flour. We are at a point in the development of analytics tools to support population health management in which everyone is struggling to some degree to develop and use tools that can really effectively power true population health management, as I note in this month’s cover story.

Right now, we as a national healthcare delivery and payment system are still near the beginning of a very long journey towards true population health management in the most robust sense. It will be fascinating to see how the interplay of rapid IT solution development and clinical performance and process improvement might change how population health management is executed over time; and who knows how IT development might lead to actual changes in care delivery processes in our healthcare system? We’ll all look back and wonder at how primitive things were earlier, and what strides we will have made by then—just as we have with wind and water power in the modern world.