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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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