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Health Innovation: Moving Faster and Slower Than You Think


Imagine the highs and lows of the consumer experience in this scenario: you use your iPhone to order an Uber. You’re picked up within minutes by a friendly driver in a Tesla, who takes you to your doctor’s appointment at a nearby hospital. Once there, you have no idea where to go.  Eventually you’re greeted by a line and handed a clipboard of paperwork to sign.  An hour after your scheduled appointment, you get to see your doctor for a few minutes.

We all know the healthcare system has a problem. Among many entrepreneurs and innovators, the ecosystem is seen as bureaucratic and stifling. Even though the Affordable Care Act is bringing reform and a treasure trove of opportunity to entrepreneurs, a great deal of pessimism remains, leading many to believe that groundbreaking leaps forward are simply not possible anytime soon. There are many commonly circulated myths that reflect this sentiment: we’ll never cure cancer, we can’t extend life expectancy by several decades, costs will remain high forever, and access to quality care will remain out of reach for people living in rural and remote areas.

The pessimism is misplaced. In truth, innovation in healthcare is happening on an exponential growth curve and much faster than most realize. Some progress seems slow, such as the effort to streamline electronic medical records. Yet other technologies are advancing at breakneck speed. In a generation, we’ll look back and wonder why anyone went to a pharmacy to pick up a prescription, instead of just 3-D printing pills at home. We’ll wonder how we could allow patients to die while waiting on the organ transplant list, when the technology to grow organs in a lab was within our reach.

With the advent of the internet and advances in computing power, other major industries such as music, retail, publishing and even transportation completely re-invented themselves to become more efficient and consumer-friendly. In a sense, the concept of Moore’s law, or exponential growth, is applied unevenly in healthcare. Different segments of the ecosystem experience different rates of progress at different times. That’s why health innovation is happening both much faster and much slower than anyone realizes.

Many have argued that compared to a typical consumer market, the rules are different in healthcare. Chiefly, they point out that the healthcare market is more complex. There are third party players, such as insurance companies and the government, which both influence prices and policy. Second, technological upheaval is mired by a tangled web of rules and regulations. Patient privacy protection rules established by HIPAA may have been a good idea in theory, but in practice, the rules have led to disastrous unintended consequences in which a patient’s own data is effectively locked away and never put to any useful scientific inquiry. In addition, due to thousands of proprietary IT systems, none of which have any financial incentive to work together,interoperability in healthcare remains a distant vision.

In 2012, Harvard conducted a survey designed to capture the sentiment of executives in healthcare. When asked about their feelings on the future cost and quality of healthcare in the United States, 22% of these leaders reported feeling “strongly negative,” 77% felt “moderate,” and only 1% felt “strongly positive.” Entrepreneurs and healthcare leaders have clearly been fooled by a distracting sideshow of interoperability struggles, HIPAA regulations and disparate electronic medical records. Today there is incredible opportunity for young entrepreneurs to rethink healthcare, starting from the ground up.  And hundreds of new digital health companies have been funded since 2012.

For example, Intuitive Surgical revolutionized surgical practice with its da Vinci Robot. Now, it’s clear that in the future, surgeons will be guided by robots, much as pilots are guided by GPS navigation systems. Today modern diagnostic tools are on the cusp of a massive overhaul. Instead of clunky diagnostic machines housed inside a hospital or at a doctor’s office, companies like MC-10TheranosScanadu, and Accel Diagnostics(Accel Diagnostics is a StartUp Health portfolio company) are offering simple and accurate diagnostic tools that can be used at home.

Technologies companies also reached deep into their pockets to support ground-up innovation in healthcare. Google’s new parent company Alphabet is backing an initiative to improve life expectancy. The company, Calico, is first tackle age-related illnesses, and is also exploring the mechanism of aging, to hopefully slow down the process and extend quality of life.

IBM has also tossed its hat in the healthcare ring. The company is aiming to tackle one of the most challenging aspects of healthcare: electronic medical records. IBM’s Watson aims to untangle all the disparate forms of data, from fitness trackers to genome analysis to medical imaging, and use all this data to paint a portrait of the patient’s health.

Entrepreneurs shouldn’t be discouraged by the seeming slowness of innovation in healthcare. The very illusion of healthcare’s lumbering progress is an opportunity in hiding. Large companies like Google and IBM have recognized this chance to contribute to the exponential growth of disruptive technologies. Despite its seeming bureaucracy, healthcare will reward risk-taking entrepreneurship.