HealthTech Austin Interview

I recently had the chance to share my thoughts on AI, pharma and my favorite charity with HealthTech Austin.  Here are my thoughts…


HTA – What surprises you about the healthcare industry?

Its stunning how similar navigating healthcare is like walking through a bazaar in a foreign country.  We are bombarded with tons of messages in an uncoordinated manner and in a language few of us speak. Occasionally someone shows up speaking our language and seems helpful but generally they have ulterior motives that we have to figure out.  It really feels we put everything on the patient to figure out for themselves and that’s unfortunate.

HTA – What suggestions do you have to fix the Pharma industry?

Well I would not say fix but I do have something I’d like to see – a realistic conversation around pricing and risk.

Pharma, and their shareholders, have a legitimate desire to justify their pricing based on the high cost of developing new drugs but it ends up merging two very different concepts inside a single company — a high risk business (“R&D”) and a steady annuity business (“patent period of a product”).

The easiest way for Pharma to keep their shareholders happy while straddling these bipolar bets is through high prices at the consumer’s expense.  This is not good for society nor investors.  Society suffers from high prices and investors end up with R&D risk and a steady annuity when they might only want one of those, not both.

Furthermore, even that is just barely working.  McKinsey has a great slide highlighting for the top-15 Pharma companies how much revenue is from therapies they bought vs. created in their own labs.  It turns out much of their innovation is “bought”.

I think many Pharma companies should redefine their competitive advantage to identifying promising therapies from startups, conducting late stage trials and then commercializing.  Innovative products would reach patients faster and at a better price while offering investors the ability to chase risk (small startups on edge of R&D) or steady dividends (Pharma).

HTA – What future can artificial intelligence have on healthcare?

I believe this will improve health outcomes by distributing knowledge.  The internet distributed information but it still depended on the doctor.  Unfortunately, some are better than others at using information to drive a diagnosis.  AI will become a peer to the doctor providing knowledge.

I envision this becoming like “Intel Inside”.  Doctors will differentiate based on their AI network affiliation. Going forward I’d be more likely to select a doctor who is using an AI platform trained, and updated, by the Mayo Clinic than a doctor whose primary credential is a diploma on the wall.

HTA – How does the future of intelligent automation look to you?

I’m worried intelligent automation, or bots, are going to give a new lease on life to tech that should be retired.

Fundamentally, if human labor is substituted for robotic labor, then the price of “bad tech” drops dramatically.  No one cares about broken processes, ugly UI etc. – it is swept under the rug and it will live for a long, long time because no one experiences its inefficiencies.

Now if the money saved by bots is re-invested in other tech then this is ok.  But, thus far all I see are companies pocketing the savings from bots, and kicking the IT refresh can down the road.

HTA – What about chatbots?

I’m optimistic chatbots will break free of companies and truly help patients navigate healthcare vs. reducing call center costs.  But, to do this, chatbots need to span the healthcare industry.

For example, perhaps you are scheduling a MRI via your provider’s chatbot, and you have a question on if your pacemaker is compatible with the MRI process.

That depends on your pacemaker but you probably had to query the manufacturers chatbot for this question.  The patient is now the middle-man between the provider and manufacturer’s chatbots. The patient is back in the chaos of the bazaar amongst the barking vendors.

Someone is going to solve this by either creating a “universal healthcare chatbot” with each company maintaining its own knowledge base or we’re going to see chatbots start talking to chatbots.  Both are entirely feasible.

HTA – How do you learn, what are you reading?

Twitter and the Wall Street Journal are my sources for daily updates.  For longer-range items, I read the Economist and Business Week.

I enjoy an old-fashioned book delivered via my Kindle.  My last few included “Machine, Platform, Crowd” by Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson, “Eccentric Orbits” by John Bloom and “Storytizing” by a recent “Leader Spotlight” and Austinite Bob Pearson.

I’m currently working on “The Sentient Machine” by another local author, Amir Husain.  While reading I often tweet my reactions.  I’m amazed at how responsive authors are to comments.

HTA – What are some personal highlights of being on the board for Any Baby Can?

I’m midway through my second year as chair and it’s the most rewarding volunteering I’ve ever performed. Recruiting expertise to the board, fundraising and applying my business experience are the small ways I enable our therapists to focus on the families we serve.

Seeing how all this comes together and the great impact we have on families is very emotional and definitely a highlight.  Some of our stories are highly publicized, such as this year’s Austin American Statesman Season for Caring, or “Nathan” on our YouTube channel.  Any Baby Can helps over 6,000 children and families each year and I’m very proud of that.

More directly related to the board, I’m especially pleased of how we’ve positioned Any Baby Can despite the dramatic cuts the Texas Legislature is putting into childhood development.  The Texas Tribune continues to enlighten on this topic, and I’d encourage all of us to stay engaged. The legislature’s cuts recently forced another childhood development agency to close.  At the State’s request, we stepped in expanding our Early Childhood Intervention (ECI) program by 40%.  Despite the State’s shortsightedness, families in need continued to receive vital services.

Oh, by the way, each of you are invited to join me at ACL on February 15th, 2018.  ACL, St. Paul and the Broken Bones are helping Any Baby Can raise money to continue funding services for families in need.  Tickets are on sale via the ACL box office.  It will be fun!

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