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#Healthin2Point00, Episode 225 | Amwell acquires SilverCloud & Conversa – plus more deals

Today on Health in 2 Point 00, we have a deal so big it’s brought me out of vacation just for this episode! Amwell acquires not one, but TWO companies – DTx mental health company SilverCloud Health and chatbot company Conversa Health for a combined $320 million. In other news, mental health company Sondermind raises $150 million, bringing their total to $188 million, and femtech company Elvie raises $80 million, bringing their total to $133.9 million. —Matthew Holt

The Most Important Thing

By KIM BELLARD

Jack Dorsey has some big hopes for bitcoin.  In a webinar last week, he said: “My hope is that it creates world peace or helps create world peace.”  The previous week Mr. Dorsey announced Square was starting a decentralized financial services (DeFi) business based on bitcoin, joining the previously announced Square bitcoin wallet.  

None of this should be a surprise.  At the Bitcoin 2021 conference in June, Mr. Dorsey said: “Bitcoin changes absolutely everything.  I don’t think there is anything more important in my lifetime to work on.”

I’m impressed that someone with as many accomplishments as Jack Dorsey picks something not obviously related to those accomplishments and decides it is the most important thing he could work on.  So, of course, I had to wonder: what might accomplished people in healthcare say was the most important thing they wanted to be working on?

For many these days, of course, it is the COVID-19 pandemic.  Not much has had a higher priority.  Highly effective vaccines have been developed, COVID-19 treatments have greatly improved, supply chains have been adjusted and readjusted, and countless public health measures have been tried.  Healthcare professionals have worked themselves to extremes.

For others, perhaps, it would be to address the extreme financial hardships the U.S. healthcare system can cause.  A new study in JAMA confirmed what is hiding in plain sight – hundreds of billions of medical debt.   Debt continued to rise despite ACA, especially in states that perversely chose not to expand Medicaid.  Efforts such as requiring hospital “price transparency” have largely failed.  Many large hospital systems continue to sue patients who can’t pay.  These hardships are unfair, immoral, and unique to the U.S.; addressing them should be important.

However, both the pandemic and financial obstacles contributed to, but did not cause, the big health inequities in the U.S. healthcare system.  People of color, people in lower socioeconomic classes, even women all face numerous inequities in the health care they receive and in the health they achieve.   These may reflect broader social inequities, but no one in healthcare should look at these without wanting to address them. 

Digital health has never been hotter. The pandemic reminded people how valuable telehealth can be, and investors are pouring money into digital health at astounding levels – some $19b in the first half of 2021 alone.  We may be in bit of a manic phase right now, but few doubt that digital health is going to be a big part of healthcare’s future. 

Then there’s artificial intelligence (A.I.).  No industry in 2021 can be ignoring it. Some well-publicized mishaps with IBM’s Watson or Babylon Health notwithstanding, A.I. in healthcare has already made impressive strides, such as DeepMind’s recent protein predictions or its successes in imaging.  A.I. is going to be built into our health care in the future, either in a supporting role or directly, and working on it has to be on many people’s wish list.  

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Health Care Should Go (Micro) Nuclear

By KIM BELLARD

I think of hospitals as the healthcare system’s nuclear power plants.  They’re both big, complex, expensive to build, beset with heavy regulatory burdens, consistently major components of their respective systems (healthcare and electric generation) yet declining in number.  Each is seen to offer benefits to many but also to pose unexpected risk to some.

Interestingly, there’s a “micro” trend for each, but aimed towards different ends.

Micro hospitals have been with us for several years.  They usually have only around ten beds, along with an emergency room, lab and imaging.  Dr. Tom Vo, CEO of Nutex Health, says: “We position ourselves between urgent care and a big hospital.”  A micro-hospital Chief Medical Officer admits: “We still partner with our larger hospital partners for patients who might require surgery or intensive care.” 

They’re not trying to reinvent hospitals so much as to support them and offer more convenience to patients.  Not so with micro reactors; they’re looking to revitalize their industry, which is in trouble.

According to the U.S. Energy Administration (E.I.A.), there are 94 U.S. nuclear reactors, at 56 nuclear power plants, in 28 states.  Only one new reactor has gone active in the U.S. since 1996, while almost two dozen are in various stages of decommissioning and only two new ones are under construction.  Overall, the U.S. gets about 20% of its power from nuclear reactors, while 13 countries get at least a quarter of their electricity from nuclear, with France leading the pack at 75%.     

We talk a lot about transitioning away from using fossil fuels to generate electric power, but none of the renewable options currently offers a realistic path towards replacing them.  Nuclear power is the proven alternative, but, as Dan Van Boom wrote in CNET, nuclear power has a PR problem.  No one wants a nuclear power plant in their backyard, no matter how big that backyard is.

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Up, Please

By KIM BELLARD

When I think of elevator operators, I think of health care.

Now, it’s not likely that many people think about elevator operators very often, if ever.  Many have probably never seen an elevator operator.  The idea of a uniformed person standing all day in an elevator pushing buttons so that people can get to their floors seems unnecessary at best and ludicrous at worse. 

But once upon a time, they were essential, until they weren’t.  Healthcare, don’t say you haven’t been warned. 

Elevators have been around in some form for hundreds of years, and by the 19th century were using steam or electricity to give them more power, but it wasn’t until Elisha Otis debuted the safety elevator that they came into their own.  New engineering techniques such as steel frames made skyscrapers possible, but safe elevators made them feasible; no one wanted to climb stairs for 10+ stories. 

Those generations of elevators weren’t quite like the ones we’re used to.  The speed and direction had to be controlled manually, the elevator had to be carefully brought to a stop at a floor, and the doors had to be opened and closed.  Managing all this was not something that anyone wanted to entrust to passengers.  Thus the role of the elevator operator.

But, of course, technology evolved, allowing for more automation.  According to elevator engineering expert Stephen R. Nichols:

Elevator buttons were introduced in 1892, electronic signal control in 1924, automatic doors in 1948, and in 1950 the first operatorless elevator was installed at the Atlantic Refining Building in Dallas. Full automatic control and autotronic supervision and operation followed in 1962, and elevator efficiency has steadily increased in other ways.

Elevator operators gradually transitioned from being mechanical operators to concierges, helping passengers find the right floors and making them more comfortable.  A 1945 elevator operators strike in New York City had a crippling effect.  As Henry L. Greenidge, Esq. wrote on Linkedin, “The public refused to go near the controls despite having watched the operators work the levers numerous times. The thought that a layperson could operate an elevator was simply an outrageous thought.” 

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Go Ahead, AI—Surprise Us

By KIM BELLARD

Last week I was on a fun podcast with a bunch of people who were, as usual, smarter than me, and, in particular, more knowledgeable about one of my favorite topics – artificial intelligence (A.I.), particularly for healthcare.  With the WHO releasing its “first global report” on A.I. — Ethics & Governance of Artificial Intelligence for Health – and with no shortage of other experts weighing in recently, it seemed like a good time to revisit the topic. 

My prediction: it’s not going to work out quite like we expect, and it probably shouldn’t. 

“Like all new technology, artificial intelligence holds enormous potential for improving the health of millions of people around the world, but like all technology it can also be misused and cause harm,” Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General, said in a statement.  He’s right on both counts.

WHO’s proposed six principles are:

  • Protecting human autonomy
  • Promoting human well-being and safety and the public interest
  • Ensuring transparency, explainability and intelligibility 
  • Fostering responsibility and accountability
  • Ensuring inclusiveness and equity 
  • Promoting AI that is responsive and sustainable

All valid points, but, as we’re already learning, easier to propose than to ensure.  Just ask Timnit Gebru.  When it comes to using new technologies, we’re not so good about thinking through their implications, much less ensuring that everyone benefits.  We’re more of a “let the genie out of the bottle and see what happens” kind of species, and I hope our future AI overlords don’t laugh too much about that. 

As Stacey Higginbotham asks in IEEE Spectrum, “how do we know if a new technology is serving a greater good or policy goal, or merely boosting a company’s profit margins?…we have no idea how to make it work for society’s goals, rather than a company’s, or an individual’s.”   She further notes that “we haven’t even established what those benefits should be.”

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Health Tech: Part II –Powering Up The Vision

By MIKE MAGEE

Few can disagree that, in the fog of the Covid 19 pandemic, health technology entrepreneurs have been on a tear. In the first year of Covid’s isolation induced new reality, digital health companies experienced a $21.6 billion investment boost, double that of the prior year, and four times 2016 funding.

By year two, the investment community exhibited some signs of self-restraint by raising a few open ended questions. For example, in early 2021, Deloitte & Touche led a Future of Health panel at the J.P. Morgan Healthcare conference, reporting that “panelists suggested that entrepreneurs need to go beyond products that simply improve processes or solve existing problems.”

Panelists predicted that virtual health delivery services will expand; consumers will demand greater involvement including expansion of  home diagnostics; and investment driven mergers and acquistions will explode – all of which has proven to be true.

Adding push to shove, Deloitte added this final nudge: “Entrepreneurs who define new markets, dominate them with a strategy people can understand, and extract value will likely be the most successful.”

Forty years ago, in the early beginnings of Health Tech, words similar to those above triggered cautionary tones from traditionalists. For example,  Dr. John A. Benson, Jr., then President of the Board of Internal Medicine, stated “There is a groundswell in American medicine, this desire to encourage more ethical and humanistic concerns in physicians. After the technological progress that medicine made in the 60’s and 70’s, this is a swing of the pendulum back to the fact that we are doctors, and that we can do a lot better than we are doing now.”

He accurately described the mood then, and for most of the 20th century, of academic clinicians toward technology, a complex love-hate relationship that has rejoiced and cheered on progress, while struggling to accept and master change in a manner that would avoid driving a wedge between academicians, clinicians and patients.

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Health Tech, Part I: Where We Are Going, Not Just How Fast We Can Get There

By MIKE MAGEE

What will be the lasting impact of the Covid 19 pandemic?

We still don’t know the answer to that question in full. But one thing that can be said with some certainty is that it has strengthened the hand of Big Tech and all things virtual. Consider the fact that within the Biden White House administration, 13 senior aides have Big Tech resumes with time spent in firms like Google, Facebook, Twitter, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft and more.

This pandemic-induced scrape with mortality has instigated widely varied responses ranging from existential re-awakenings to explosive entrepreneurship.

In health care for example, health tech start-up’s are altering research, education, care delivery and coordination, data mining, patient privacy and financing.

As we know well from health care, intermingling profit, policy and politics can eventually lead to conflict and recrimination. The current controversy over NIH indirect funding of Shi Zengli’s Wuhan “gain-of-function” viral research through Peter Daszak’s New York based EcoHealth Alliance is a case in point.

But we’ve been there before. In the 1990s, James M. Wilson received a PhD and an MD degree from the University of Michigan, then completed an internal medicine residency at Massachusetts General Hospital and a postdoctoral fellowship at MIT. By 1997, he was one of the leading stars in the new gene-therapy movement, directing his own research institute at the University of Pennsylvania.

The institute focused on adjusting the genes of children born with a hereditary disease called ornithine transcarbamylase deficiency (OTD), which prevents the normal removal of ammonia in the body. Wilson’s experimental technique involved genetic engineering, splicing therapeutic genes into supposedly harmless viruses that, once injected into the body, could carry their payload to defective cells and repair the genetic errors.

Dr. Wilson was attempting to determine the maximum dose of genetically modified material that could be safely injected into affected youngsters. He had enlisted 18 participants, including a teenager named Jesse Gelsinger who had a version of the genetic disease in which some of his liver cells carried the genetic abnormality but other cells were entirely normal. Those who have the full-blown disorder die in early childhood. But with his mosaic, Jesse most of the time felt well, as long as he continued to take 32 pills a day.

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Will Virtual Care Platforms (VCPs) Become Healthcare’s Mega-Platforms?

Seth Joseph
Vince Kuraitis

By VINCE KURAITIS and SETH JOSEPH

Let’s start with a pop quiz. Take 15 seconds to look at the list below, asking yourself the question “What do all these have in common?”

  • address books
  • video cameras
  • pagers
  • wristwatches
  • maps
  • books
  • travel
  • games
  • flashlights
  • home telephones
  • cash registers
  • MP3 players
  • Day timers
  • alarm clocks
  • answering machines
  • The Yellow Pages
  • wallets
  • keys
  • transistor radios
  • personal digital assistants
  • dashboard navigation systems
  • newspapers and magazines
  • directory assistance
  • travel and insurance agents
  • restaurant guides
  • pocket calculators

The commonality is that all of these were disrupted by smartphones and their operating system (OS) platforms — Google Android and Apple iOS.

Let’s consider a healthcare comparison. Ask yourself, “What do all these have in common?”

  • Primary care
    • Urgent care
    • Office visits
  • Hospitals
    • Inpatient
    • Outpatient
    • ER
  • Specialist access
  • Behavioral health
  • Diagnostics
  • Patient portals
  • Home health services
  • Medication administration\
  • Preventive care
  • mHealth apps
  • EHR functionality/apps, e.g.,
    • Scheduling & check in
    • Billing
    • eRX
    • Medication management
    • Referral management
    • Care planning
    • Care coordination
    • Social care
    • Patient education
    • Patient communications

The commonality is that all of these are potentially disruptable by Virtual Care Platforms (VCPs).

In this essay we ask the question “Will virtual care platforms become healthcare’s mega-platforms?” We believe the potential for such a scenario is strong. We describe and assess parallels between the evolution of the duopoly smartphone operating system (OS) market and the emerging virtual care platform market. Our intent is to describe a plausible scenario for the future – not to make a prediction.

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Health Care: Don’t Be Evil

By KIM BELLARD

Google’s corporate motto – written in its original Code of Conduct — was once “Don’t be evil.”  That softened over time; Alphabet changed it to “Do the right thing” in 2015, although Google itself retained the slogan until early 2018.  Some Alphabet employees think Google/Alphabet has drifted too far away from its original aims: they’ve formed a union in order to try to steer the company back to its more idealistic roots.

Parul Koul and Chewy Shaw, two Alphabet software engineers, announced the Alphabet Workers Union in a New York Times op-ed, vowing to live by the original motto, and to do what they can to ensure that Alphabet and its various companies do as well.  They assert: “We want Alphabet to be a company where workers have a meaningful say in decisions that affect us and the societies we live in.”

It’s past time that health care workers, including physicians and executives, stood up for the same thing.

Ms. Koul and Mr. Shaw cite several grievances, including payouts to executives accused of sexual harassment, the firing of a leading AI expert over her efforts to address bias in AI, and company efforts to “keep workers from speaking on sensitive and publicly important topics.”  Doing the work, even doing it well and being well paid for it, is not enough:

We care deeply about what we build and what it’s used for. We are responsible for the technology we bring into the world. And we recognize that its implications reach far beyond the walls of Alphabet.

Their goal is for Alphabet “to be a company where workers have a meaningful say in decisions that affect us and the societies we live in.”  Alphabet, they say, “has a responsibility to prioritize the public good. It has a responsibility to its thousands of workers and billions of users to make the world a better place.” 

Investors may not quite agree.

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The Wrong Legacies

By KIM BELLARD

I read two articles this week that got me thinking, Robert Charette’s “Inside the Hidden World of Legacy IT Systems” (IEEE Spectrum) and Douglas Holt’s “Cultural Innovation” (Harvard Business Review).   Both deal with what I’ll call legacy thinking. 

It’s a particular problem for healthcare.

———-

If you work in a large organization, especially one that has been around for at least a few decades, the words “legacy system” probably strikes angst in you.  If you’ve dealt with such an organization, legacy systems probably contributed to problems you may have had with them.  Think about health insurance claims systems, hospital billing systems, financial institution account records, or practically any government system. 

Dr. Charette points out:

Though these systems run practically every aspect of our lives, we don’t give them a second thought because, for the most part, they function. It doesn’t even occur to us that IT is something that needs constant attention to be kept in working order.”

Because they usually work OK, management often doesn’t want to risk the potential disruption of replacing or modernizing them, so they get older and older, with more and more layers built on them, and with the people who originally built them or understand the language they are written in (e.g. COBOL) gone. 

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