Editor's Notes: What Links Early Tibetans’ Survival Techniques and the Present Moment in U.S. Healthcare?

Jan. 27, 2017
I was fascinated to read a recent Scientific American article that looked at how early Tibetans figured out how to use fire strategically to improve their chances of survival—and how such insights might speak to the current moment in healthcare

I was fascinated to read a recent article in Scientific American online, both for what scientists have discovered and how they discovered it. The article, “Tibetan Plateau Discovery Shows Humans May Be Tougher Than We Thought,” examines some new knowledge that’s been uncovered around the first Tibetans.

As the article notes, “The first humans venturing onto the Tibetan Plateau, often called the ‘roof of the world,’ faced one of the most brutal environments our species can endure. At an average elevation of over 4,500 meters, it is a cold and arid place with half the oxygen present at sea level. Science has long held that humans did not set foot in this alien place until 15,000 years ago... But now new genetic data indicate this may have occurred much earlier—possibly as far back as the last ice age, 62,000 years ago.”

The interest is as much scientific as historical. As the unsigned article notes, scientists are particularly interested in finding out how humans moving into areas like Tibet have been able to adapt to the low-oxygen conditions at high altitudes. “For the new study,” the article noted, “researchers sequenced the entire genomes of 38 ethnic Tibetans and 39 Han Chinese, and compared the results with published genomic sequences of other ethnic groups around the world… [allowing the] team to pinpoint the common genetic origin of different populations and to get a better grasp on the history of migration in Tibet.” Among others engaged in related research has been Shuhua Xu, a population geneticist at the Chinese Institute of Sciences’ Shanghai Institutes for Biological Sciences, who published research in September in the American Journal of Human Genetics.

Among other findings, Xu was able to uncover a startling genetic continuity since the plateau was first colonized 62,000 years ago. “This suggests that Tibet has always been populated—even during the toughest times as far as climate was concerned,” Xu says.  As the article notes, “That idea contradicts the commonly held notion that any early plateau dwellers would have been eliminated during harsh climate intervals.” Instead, scientists are discovering how early Tibetans figured out how to use fire strategically in order to improve their living conditions and increase their chances of survival on the plateau. Reading that article reminded me once again how ingenious human beings have been throughout their history—how, time and time again, they’ve risen up to find solutions to their challenges.

Innovation is precisely the topic of focus in this issue of our magazine, as we share with you, our readers, the four winning teams and nine semi-finalist teams, in our annual Healthcare Informatics Innovator Awards Program. Reading the stories about the innovations taking place at Allina Health, Mercy Health-Ohio, Mercy Health-St. Louis, and the East Boston Neighborhood Health Center, and those of the runner-up teams, you will learn about ingenious approaches that leaders at those organizations have taken to meet head-on the challenges facing them in their communities and markets.

At a time when providers are challenged as never before to deliver patient care that is of higher quality, more efficiently and at lower cost, and to better serve the needs and desires of their communities, it is a privilege and a pleasure for us to once again share with you, our readers, stories that will remind you just how innovative human beings can be. So, just like the early Tibetans, who braved harsh conditions and survived—and the contemporary scientists working to decipher the Tibetans’ history—there is always room for innovative approaches to challenges—and evidence of that innovation.

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