There’s a big discussion going on in the health tech community about a controversial keynote speech given by Vinod Khosla at the Health Innovation Summit (HIS), in which he stated that 80% of what doctors do could be replaced by machines.
If you’re a doc like me who has no idea who the heck Vinod Khosla is (he’s a venture capitalist and co-founder of Sun Microsystems), why he’d be a keynote speaker at a healthcare event and what the heck HIS is, well, that’s the point of this post. You see, there are a whole lot of folks like Khosla out there – investors, entrepreneurs, tech types – who are attempting to redefine healthcare according to their own personal vision. Where we see a healthcare system in crisis, they see opportunity – just another problem with a technological solution. Computer-driven algorithms are the answer to mis-diagnosis and medical error, IPhone apps can replace physician visits, video connectivity can increase access.
Where we see illness and distress, they see a market.
And what business folks like to call disruption in the marketplace. Think about what happened to downtown small town USA after the first shopping mall opened. Or what happened to movie houses when Netflix started offering DVD rentals online. Or where all the independent bookstores went when the first Borders opened up, and what happened to Borders when the Kindle hit the market.
Out with the old, in with the new.
If Khosla is right, the we docs in our offices and hospitals are the old downtown department stores, the bookstores and the bricks and mortar businesses in an online revolution. We’re replaceable. At least most of us.
While the nation has been focused on the recent Supreme Court ruling on the Affordable Care Act, innovations in hospitals and physician practices far from Capitol Hill have been triggering an historic transformation of our health care system. Propelled by a mix of urgency and vision, innovators at hospitals, physician groups and companies are remaking American health care by demonstrating that more effective and affordable care is achievable quite apart from statutory changes in Washington.
These organizations are working to achieve the Triple Aim: improve the health of the population; enhance the patient experience of care (including quality, access, and reliability); and reduce, or at least control, the per capita cost of care. This approach, developed by the Institute for Healthcare Improvement, is a sharp break with the traditional focus on single encounters with patients within the strict walls of health care delivery, typically addressing only the most immediate problems. Continue reading…
In 1932, the Committee on the Cost of Medical Care identified rising medical costs as a threat to the financial security of millions of Americans. In a series of studies that created the field of health services research, the Committee recommended several strategies for cost containment that reads like a blueprint for today’s cost containment efforts: prevention, price controls, capitation, elimination of unnecessary care, and integration. If it sounds like a précis of my previous two blogs – cut prices and cut quantities – it should. We have known for a long time that those are the only ways to cut spending. And yet here we are, 80 years later, facing a spending crisis that threatens to take down the entire economy.
In my lifetime, we have been subjected to a steady drumbeat of rising medical costs. There have been respites – for a couple of years after Medicare introduced DRGs and for about five years in the 1990s during the heyday of HMOs. While DRGs and HMOs shifted costs down, they did not seem to reverse underlying growth trends, although HMOs did not thrive for long enough to be certain.
Not for lack of trying have medical costs continued to increase. We promote prevention, regulate prices, capitate providers, and review utilization to eliminate wasteful spending. We have seen horizontal integration that led to market power and higher costs, and vertical integration that more often than not created unmanageable bureaucracies. Most of today’s proposals for cost containment can be encapsulated by two words: “Try harder.” The Affordable Care Act gives us free preventive care, stricter price controls, ACOs, and the Comparative Effectiveness Institute. We need radical change but all we get is creeping incrementalism. I will take creeping incrementalism over the do-nothing approach of the previous decade, if only because we could use another respite. But the ACA is no permanent fix.
Here at THCB we really can’t think of many lectures we’d rather sit in on than Peter Thiel’s Stanford course on entrepreneurship. And we can’t think of a better guest to catch than Netscape co-founder Marc Andreeson. In this talk, Andreeson talks about how healthcare IT is changing in the Facebook and Big Data Era era, the privacy issue and how the cloud may or not be eating software.
Is Software Eating the World?
Marc Andreessen’s most famous thesis is that software is eating the world. Certainly there are a number of sectors that have already been eaten. Telephone directories, journalism, and accounting brokerages are a few examples. Arguably music has been eaten too, now that distribution has largely gone online. Industry players don’t always see it coming or admit it when it arrives. The New York Times declared in 2002 that the Internet was over and, that distraction aside, we could all go back to enjoying newspapers. The record industry cheered when it took down Napster. Those celebrations were premature.
If it’s true that software is eating the world, the obvious question is what else is getting or will soon get eaten? There are a few compelling candidates. Healthcare has a lot going on. There have been dramatic improvements in EMR technology, healthcare analytics, and overall transparency. But there are lots of regulatory issues and bureaucracy to cut through.
Education is another sector that software might consume. People are trying all sorts of ways to computerize and automate learning processes. Then there’s the labor sector, where startups like Uber and Taskrabbit are circumventing the traditional, regulated models. Another promising sector is law. Computers may well end up replacing a lot of legal services currently provided by humans. There’s a sense in which things remain inefficient because people—very oddly—trust lawyers more than computers.
It’s hard to say when these sectors will get eaten. Suffice it to say that people should not bet against computers in these spheres. It may not be the best idea to go be the kind of doctor or lawyer that technology might render obsolete.
In a piece just posted at TheAtlantic.com, I discuss what I see as the next great quest in applied science: the assembly of a unified health database, a “big data” project that would collect in one searchable repository all the parameters that measure or could conceivably reflect human well-being.
I don’t expect the insights gained from these data will obsolete physicians, but rather empower them (as well as patients and other stakeholders) and make them better, informing their clinical judgment without supplanting their empathy.
I also discuss how many companies and academic researchers are focusing their efforts on defined subsets of the information challenge, generally at the intersection of data domains. I observe that one notable exception seems to be big pharma, as many large drug companies seem to have decided that hefty big data analytics is a service to be outsourced, rather than a core competency to be built. I then ask whether this is savvy judgment or a profound miscalculation, and suggest that if you were going to create the health solutions provider of the future, arguably your first move would be to recruit a cutting-edge analytics team.
The question of core competencies is more than just semantics – it is perhaps the most important strategic question facing biopharma companies as they peer into a frightening and uncertain future.
One of the few health policy issues that receives bipartisan support is the need to dramatically alter the way providers are paid, shifting from “paying for volume” to “paying for value” to alter the trajectory of health care spending while improving health care quality.
To facilitate this shift, the Affordable Care Act equipped the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services with a range of cost-cutting and quality-enhancing tools―the most significant of which might be its new Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation. In this blog post, we share insights from recent research funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation on the Innovation Center’s new role, organization, and model selection criteria.
Based on interviews with senior leadership, it’s clear the organization sees its role as two-fold: complementing existing efforts to innovate; and delving into new ideas.
Most of the Innovation Center’s efforts to date have focused on the former―implementing congressionally-mandated demonstrations or ideas that Congress or policy experts have already conceived (e.g., accountable care organizations). More recently, the Innovation Center has begun to seek new ideas from innovators across the country and to promote bottom-up innovation―primarily through its Innovation Challenge.
In the battle over health care that lies ahead, how strongly will the public rally around the need for innovation in confronting health care costs? Does the public view innovation as relevant to the challenge in the first place?
These aren’t idle questions. The news that growth in overall national health care spending has been moderating has raised speculation that innovations in payment and health care delivery are already paying off, notwithstanding the unquestioned impact of the Great Recession.
Looking ahead, uncertainty over the fate of the Affordable Care Act and the likelihood of federal budget cuts yet to come has many fearing that innovations will be vulnerable. And it is not just federal spending that will be at risk. Hospitals and health plans will all be watching their margins carefully to assess how far and how fast they can keep making investments that support innovation (such as investments in healthcare IT, analytics and care coordination) but that may take months or years to generate a return.
All of which places the role of innovation in controlling costs center stage. After all, this is what undergirds the Triple Aim that so many health care leaders have embraced as the only realistic alternative to arbitrary cutbacks in health care services and spending. Health care leaders can defend innovation if they have public support. But do they?
As an ever increasing amount of money seems determined to chase an ever greater number of questionable ideas, it’s perhaps not surprising that inquiring minds want to know: (1) Are we really in a tech bubble? (2) If so, when will it pop? (3) What should I do in the meantime?
I’m not sure about Question 1: I’ve heard some distinguished valley wags insist we’re not in a tech bubble, and that current valuations are justified, but I also know many technology journalists feel certain the end is neigh, and view the bubble as an established fact of life – see here and here. The surge of newly-minted MBAs streaming to start-ups has been called out as a likely warning sign of the upcoming apocalypse as well.
I have the humility to avoid Question 2: as Gregory Zuckerman reviews in The Greatest Trade Ever, even if you’re convinced you’re in a bubble, and you’re right, the real challenge is figuring out when to get out. Isaac Newton discovered this the hard way in the South Sea Bubble, leading him to declare, “I can calculate the motions of heavenly bodies but not the madness of people.”
I do have a thought about Question 3, however – what to do: reconsider digital health — serious digital health.
Here’s why: Instagram and similar apps are delightful, but hardly essential; most imitators and start-ups inspired by their success are neither. It doesn’t strain credulity to imagine investors in these sorts of companies waking up one day and experiencing their own Seinfeld moment, as it occurs to them they’ve created a portfolio built around nothing.
It didn’t appear on the lightning strike map, but lightning did indeed strike a young medical student inside the Washington Convention Center right in front of about 1,500 amazed spectators on the first day of The Health Data Initiative Forum III: The Health Datapalooza. Everyone is fine—though our medical student may never be the same again.
Actually, this story began long before Datapalooza, of course. Fourth-year medical student, Craig Monsen, and his Johns Hopkins Medical School classmate, David Do, started collaborating on software applications soon after they met in first-year anatomy class. Craig graduated from Harvard with degrees in Engineering and Computer Science and David from University of Minnesota in Bioengineering.
They’re not quite Jobs and Wozniak—neither dropped out of anything—yet—although Craig, at least, is planning to skip or delay residency. You see, after seeing the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Aligning Forces for Quality Developer Challenge last year—they got very serious about bringing to life their vision of new applications that could help patients and consumers make great health care decisions.
Venture capitalists like to use the word “traction.” It sounds all glamorous, like an ad showing a Range Rover toughing it out up some impossible incline. But when I hear a company talk about ‘early traction’ in its pitch, I’m always leery of the “First and Worst” effect.
My first customer at my first company was a grandfatherly CIO at a big hospital. Of course I wanted to please him, and was enthusiastic about doing so. But I was also very focused on taking over the world with our software. I told him, “We’ll change anything you want about the product, as long as it’ll be good for all our future [gazillion] customers.”
Of course, The Grandfather wanted lots of one-off customizations that would really only be good for him. I told him that all the time we spent doing custom work for him was going to make us less profitable, and less likely to be able to sell the product to other people. And to survive long enough to do any improvements to the product at all, we needed to be profitable. He seemed to think that made sense, and begrudgingly agreed.
In the end this arrangement was a win for both of us. Our product was a home run for his hospital. We got an evangelical reference customer, and his hospital helped make our product better. The precedent we’d set with The Grandfather gave us the courage to refuse other customers who wanted one-off changes. Sure, we could have done this for one or two hospitals, but by the time we got to hospital 300, it would have been a mess.