In the nation’s capital, the search for solutions to America’s healthcare crisis has sometimes felt like the search for the Holy Grail. The answers are assuredly out there; plenty of dedicated people are on the hunt; but the remedy for what ails U.S. healthcare has seemed just out of reach to the politicians. But a group of healthcare pioneers offered a much more optimistic glimpse into the future at the recent Washington Post Transformers Health conference, which gathered healthcare policymakers, innovators and administrators.
The medical entrepreneurs, scientists, doctors and public health experts acknowledged that American healthcare faces real problems, but in general they agreed that breakthrough technologies, implemented in an integrated and inclusive environment, can dramatically transform the delivery of healthcare.
Many of the panelists shared similar optimism. Their work ranged from developing “liquid biopsies” (Dr. Girish Putcha, CMO, Freenome) to building personal genome platforms (Dr. James Lu, co-founder of Helix to the outside-the-box thinking of Deepak Chopra. The well-known leader in mind-body medicine talked about his holistic approach to health, which embraces technology but also emphasizes what’s going on in a patient’s life, from eating habits to the environment to emotions. Chopra told the audience: “Society has a responsibility collectively to minimize our propensity to disease.”)
And it’s already happening. The National Institutes of Health (NIH), for example, has launched an historic research project called All of Us. NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins told the group that more than a million Americans will be monitored in this long-term, personalized health study. Wearable sensors will track body performance over time and allow NIH to form a comprehensive picture of each participant through electronic health records, questionnaires and testing. NIH will also do a complete DNA sequence of the group’s genomes, which will let researchers zero in on both prevention and chronic illness, accelerating research and improving health.
Once upon a time, a study the size of NIH’s would have been prohibitively expensive. Today, technology is helping significantly lower the cost of DNA sequencing along with wearables and the management of data. Panelist Dr. Daniel Kraft, executive director of Singularity University, said “3D printing is becoming something you can have in your home.” He also added, “Things we could use for gaming are now being played out in the operating room.”
Dr. Anthony Atala, director of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine, provided more evidence that cutting-edge healthcare innovation offers real hope for a better healthcare future. According to Dr. Atala, a leader in organ, bone and tissue engineering, the demand for organs has grown six-fold over the last twenty-five years. He said human clinical trials are already testing engineered organs and tissue that soon may help deliver the technology to meet organ demand.
Dr. Kraft also argued that U.S. healthcare is making an important move toward value-based care, in which the expenditure on medicine is measured against its actual outcomes with patients. “We need to think about aligning the incentives,” he said, “to stimulate some of these new innovations and bring them to market faster.” But all the breakthroughs in the world don’t mean much unless patients have access to them, he added.
The need for inclusion and access to modern medical technology was echoed by several panelists. Dr. Richard Besser, president of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation said, “I want to see efforts to spur technology; to look at how we use technology to address the health issues for the most vulnerable members of society and close some of those gaps.”
CEO Frans van Houten of healthcare technology company Philips agreed. He said his company has been bridging the gap between the healthcare “have and have nots” by “rewriting the rules of inclusion through technology, new ways of working and new models of reimbursement.”
To encourage patient-centered healthcare with no boundaries, van Houten said Philips focuses on five crucial components: open innovation, seamless care, better outcomes, improved productivity and expanded inclusion.
The CEO told attendees that unique partnerships today are generating healthcare innovations with extraordinary potential to develop the kind of holistic solutions that 21st century health needs. Technology can work for both providers and patients, but van Houten said the healthcare industry has to connect the dots by creating seamless, data-driven systems that can talk to each other, make data available when and where health decisions are made, and deliver care all along the “care continuum” from hospital to home.
That means moving beyond transactional sales of technology and taking a more comprehensive, integrated approach to patient care. For most healthcare providers, it also means breaking down organizational and societal barriers that keep American healthcare trapped in an outdated model that is increasingly an outlier among developed countries. The American system today emphasizes activity like tests and procedures rather than prevention and outcomes that genuinely lead to healthier people.
Clearly, there is also a connection between creating seamless care and productivity. The Philips’ chief told the gathering “I contend that the Digital Age has as much to offer as the Industrial Age in enabling the way we transform healthcare through productivity.” Philips focuses on clinical information to improve workflows and applies AI to help doctors be more productive, all with an aim of creating more cost-effective care.
In the end, when it comes to healthcare, however, it always comes down to patient outcomes. Van Houten said outcomes were the “reason people in healthcare got out of bed in the morning.” But he also cautioned that too often “we reward activity” rather than prevention. Providers need to shift focus to patient-centered, personalized care with “first-time right diagnosis.” Technology can help by giving them the tools to measure outcomes in a much more meaningful way, and by improving integration to deliver “the right care in the right place at the right time.”
Dr. Putcha, who is innovating new types of biopsies, put it this way, asking the group “What is the goal of what any of us really do?” His answer: “It is not just to cure disease. It is actually to prevent disease and facilitate health.”
Chriss Winston of CorporateWord, an executive communications firm, wrote this article in partnership with Techonomy and Philips.