Everyone who knows my writing can attest that I neither pull punches nor play politics. It may distress people, and hopefully it won’t harbinger my demise. But as CEO of a young firm bringing overdue innovations to the Fire and Emergency Medical Services industry, there are only four groups to whom I am duty-bound: our partner-clients, their patients, our team members, and our investors (in no specific order). To remain mum on topics that could affect the physical or financial health and wellbeing of any of these parties would be a disservice.
When I was in the magazine business, I often used the phrase “Respect the medium.” The meaning was simple: when every industry player surfing the waves of innovation is trying something new, how many are asking whether the form is appropriate to the intended function? What changes need to be made to magazine’s font so its text can be read clearly on a small, backlit screen? What interactivity can be embedded into a digitally delivered? How will the user’s experience change when network access is down? (In February 2012, I wrote about these topics for Electronic Design Magazine.)
Failure to ask these questions is often the downfall of the delivery method: either the medium changes or its use declines; rarely do customers acclimate. In the publishing world, if your readers ignore you, you go away—no lasting harm or foul. Not so in healthcare or public safety. Especially during emergencies, if a product fails to work as intended—or to work at all—it can mean lost productivity, mountainous legal fees, brain death, or loss of life, limb and property.
Healthcare IT offers outsized benefits to Emergency Response teams, which depend on speed, ease of training and use, data accuracy, and interoperability. But the stakes of failure or disruption are so high that one can say there are few areas of development with a more desperate need for criticism.
I served in your White House; to do so was among the highest honors of my life and an incomparable professional opportunity.
Since 2009, I’ve sought to return the favor by building on a decade as a journalist to write about the unsung innovation I saw happening beneath the public’s radar. (The federal government has never been great about describing its positive achievements, but this unintentional “humility” is worsened by too much media reliance on muckraking to generate cheap content.) The prize for some of your Administration’s improvements will be billions of dollars’ worth of process efficiency and an ability to retain social-good programs while slashing redundancy and phasing out archaic ways of doing business. All politics aside, I watched these mechanisms with my own wide eyes.
But if one is to deliver praise like I just did, then one must also be willing to highlight dangerous errors in the path ahead, especially when the potholes are avoidable. As a subject matter expert on emergency medical technologies, I have a patriotic duty to point out correctible overstatements and oversimplifications that, if left uncorrected, could undermine your Administration’s objective to bolster the public’s senses of safety, security and comfort—especially as it simultaneously emphasizes the danger of man-made and natural disasters.
On July 9, 2013, your White House sent out a “marketing” email entitled “President Obama’s Plan for Using Technology to Make Government Smarter.” The email contained the following three bullets:
Increasing efficiency and saving money. CHECK: A worthy goal, and one that I had the chance to see put in action from the inside-out, as part of the project team that relaunched USAJOBS.gov—the so-called “face of federal hiring.” The White House email cited cost reductions of our $2.5 billion; that seems reasonable, considering how extensive an effort went into collapsing duplicative data silos and databases, and modernizing the federal government’s technical infrastructure. Vivek Kundra, the visionary former federal Chief Information Officer, should be a central figure in every conversation about government’s meaningful gravitation toward efficiency; he earned more credit than he gets (but that’s not why people work in government).
Opening government data to fuel innovation and problem-solving: CHECK: The Administration claims that it is opening “huge amounts of government data to the American people, and putting it on the internet for free.” There are many ways in which this is true, ranging from Data.gov to the Blue Button Initiative, to a (relative) simplification of the grant-making process. (The latter is better than it was, but it still is eons from intuitive or fair.) Much controversy now swirls around actions that the government still keeps secret, but that cannot detract from the fact that a veritable cornucopia of information has been released, and it is indeed spurring creativity. Unfortunately, my own firm uncovered a challenging corollary problem that goes hand-in-hand with the release of oodles of data: at least some of those data are bad, faulty or incomplete, yet when we tried contacting the appropriate agency to close the gap and strive for accuracy, we were met with silence.
The last bullet in the White House’s email, however, does not deserve a “CHECK.” Rather, it is concerning and arguably more dangerous than whoever drafted the outreach piece likely realized. It also touches on something I know a bit about.
There’s always been difference between “truth” and “marketing truth,” the former being the more stringent of the two. The daily bombardment of media messaging plus occasional advertising extravaganzas (hello, Super Bowl!) has desensitized us to where consumers don’t mind the fine print that says “Do not try this at home,” “Professional driver on a closed course,” or “Screen images simulated.” Many people appreciate that Minority Report was released before screens could be controlled with fingertips; and the Tricorder has taken decades to jump from Star Trek to the X Prize.
“Marketing truth” turns irresponsible when it opens up false expectations – that is, when reality is conflated to the point that consumers can no longer distinguish between what is real and what “may be coming soon.” Great, emotionally affective commercials can do that. But emergencies – those critical moments when we feel life’s fragility – are not when we should have to stop and ask “Can they really do that?” This is precisely the burden presented by a variety of recent ads featuring Fire and EMS professionals, the most dangerous of which is produced by Verizon. Verizon’s spot risks making the public think that EMS providers and firefighters currently have access to more advanced technology in the field than, by and large, they do. The advertisement is disingenuous, which certain important facts flubbed for dramatic effect. But that happens in the marketing world everyday—why should it be any different in the case of emergency medical services or health information technology?
Quite simply, because to do so risks inculcating in the public a false sense of comfort with the state of EMS technology today; and moreover—to those among us whom seek to bring long-overdue innovations to the industry—it risks the public asking, “Doesn’t this already exist? We saw it on television, after all.”