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“The patient will see you now”: A summit on consumer-centered health-care innovation

Michael Seres, Medicine X ePatient-In-Residence and founder, 11health

What if buying health insurance was as simple as pressing a button online, like opening a new bank account? What if selecting and paying for a medical procedure was as transparent as buying gas, with the price printed right there on the pump? What if getting real-time, personalized information about managing your wellness and achieving your health goals was as easy as following an Instagram feed? Sounds unbelievable. It isn't, though, according to an inspiring line-up of speakers at Thursday's Health Care Innovation Summit, a prelude to this year's Medicine X conference, who predict that in the future, health care will be designed for consumers.

The day was packed with panel discussions and keynote talks on applying tech-based innovation to the field of health care -- including a keynote talk from Charlie Martin, who left the business of health-care management after 50 years to become "a rebel and a flame thrower." In this talk, he explained that "medication, education, and incarceration" are the three most expensive, wasteful, and stagnant industries in the United States, operating on century-old models and consuming huge levels of state resources. For health care, one-third of its $3-trillion value represents unnecessary costs; up to 20 percent is "friction costs" alone, he said. But because this waste represents revenue for sectors with conflicting interests and liabilities, including hospitals, pharmaceutical companies, insurance, and practitioners, there is little internal incentive to change a low-quality, high-cost system, Martin said.

Once consumers realize they are paying for this inefficiency and that they have choices, systems will emerge that benefit individuals, not organizations. "We have to break down the whole system and reorganize how it works — but we won't be able to do that until we break away from existing funding structures," said Martin. "The only solution is to get consumers empowered and informed, so that they can tell health care what they need."

That is where tech comes in. "'Digital' is not just a thing, it's a way of doing things," Basel Kayyali, a director of technology for McKinsey & Company, told the audience. Digital technologies can make health care local and specific, while enabling unprecedented linkages between different individuals and groups. Digital systems are dynamic, relying on fast feedback to be responsive and flexible. And consumers are ready for them: More than 60 percent of people are willing to engage with new health-care system, Kayyali said. He warned that bringing a digital approach to health care will be hard work and require collaboration between entrepreneurs, designers, software and hardware engineers, information technology specialists, policy makers, and industry leaders, as well as with providers and patients -- but he said he expects that health care is set to eclipse the dot-com era in terms of potential growth.

Many of the speakers were entrepreneurs who are bringing digital technologies to the masses. Devin Carty, co-founder and CEO of Clariture, which has developed a health-care marketing platform, promotes "shoppable health care" tools for finding and making important decisions. Michael O'Neil, founder of the GetWellNetwork, said that in response to discovering 1,000 percent price variability for some procedures, he created a "free marketplace connecting patients and providers." Gina Nebesar, co-founder of Ovuline, developed a fertility app to provide "actionable advice every minute of every day" to mitigate risk and costly procedures while providing support to concerned families.

Many entrepreneurs are patients themselves. And patients are the greatest underutilized resource in health care, argued Michael Seres, who has had Crohn's disease since childhood. He invented a "smart" osotomy bag that collects data as well as feces and keeps him out of the hospital -- but when he tried to market it in the U.S., he said he ran in to the Kafka-esque quagmire of Medicare bureaucracy. There was no code for that kind of product, he was told. When he asked if he could get one, he was told "it doesn't work that way" — there was simply no procedure for that. No one has more incentive to develop products and methods that really improve health than patients themselves, but they need collaborative systems to solve problems, he said.

Nebesar told the audience that she dreams about an experience at the doctor's office that is as appealing as walking into an Apple store. The only thing preventing this is an outdated system with splintered incentives and "information silos," she said. Though there are many intelligent people working in health care, she said, the system as a whole lacks intelligence. But, I suspect, that won't be the case for long.

Previously: Medicine X, the academic conference where "everyone is included" returns
Photo of Michael Seres courtesy of Stanford Medicine X

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