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What Does Failure Mean?

I’ve seen a number of responses to the news that the Medicare demonstration projects were not successful. Some have claimed that they were only demonstration projects, and the fact that some succeeded means we should look into those further. Others asserted that this once again proves that the government is incapable of making the health care system better.

As to the first point, it’s hard to get excited about this. By chance alone, a couple of programs were likely to save money. Four out of 34 reducing hospitalizations (when the best of them might have had inadequate data)? Hardly something to get excited about. Remember that two out of the 34 actually saw increased hospitalizations, too. I think it’s totally reasonable to think hard before just assuming there was something special about those four programs, and throwing more money at them.

But I think the latter point, made by Peter Suderman, is a bit of an over-reach as well. It’s important to remember that these were attempts by private hospitals and private physicians to change the way they care for patients. Granted, government was paying the insurance bills through Medicare, but this would have looked awfully similar if a private company had footed the bill. And, yes, private insurance companies have tried to use care coordination and disease management to reduce costs as well.

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Why Getting to a Digital Health Care System Is Going to Be Harder Than We Thought Ten Years Ago

A leading scientist once claimed that, with the relevant data and a large enough computer, he could “compute the organism” – meaning completely describe its anatomy, physiology, and behavior. Another legendary researcher asserted that, following capture of the relevant data, “we will know what it is to be human.” The breathless excitement of Sydney Brenner and Walter Gilbert —voiced more than a decade ago and captured by the skeptical Harvard geneticist Richard Lewontin [1]– was sparked by the sequencing of the human genome. Its echoes can be heard in the bold promises made for digital health today.

The human genome project, while an extraordinary technological accomplishment, has not translated easily into improved medicine nor unleashed a torrent of new cures. Perhaps the most successful “genomics” company, Millennium Pharmaceuticals, achieved lasting success not by virtue of the molecular cures they organically discovered, but by the more traditional pipeline they shrewdly acquired (notably via the purchase of LeukoSite, which ultimately yielded Campath and Velcade).

The enduring lesson of the genomics frenzy was succinctly captured by Brown and Goldstein, when they observed, “a gene sequence is not a drug.”

Flash forward to today: technologists, investors, providers, and policy makers all exalt the potential of digital health [2]. Like genomics, the big idea – or leap of faith — is that through the more complete collection and analysis of data, we’ll be able to essentially “compute” healthcare – to the point, some envision, where computers will become the care providers, and doctors will at best be customer service personnel, like the attendants at PepBoys, interfacing with libraries of software driven algorithms.

A measure of humility is in order. Just as a gene sequence is not a drug, information is not a cure. Getting there will take patience, persistence, money and aligned interests. The most successful innovators in digital health will see the promise of the technology, but also accept, embrace, and ideally leverage the ambiguity of disease, the variability of patients, and the complexities of clinical care.
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