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Averting “Disaster” in Healthcare: Xconomy Forum at MIT Tackles Big Problems and Potential Technology Fixes

Xconomy Boston — 

There’s perhaps no better place in the Boston area to talk about the future use of information technology in healthcare than the modern building in Kendall Square that houses the MIT Media Lab. The abundant windows and glass interior walls allow natural light to spill onto researchers as they advance new technologies to transform healthcare. Visitors can see across the Charles River to renowned medical care facilities like Massachusetts General Hospital, and in every other direction they can see the largest cluster of biotech research institutions on the East Coast.

It was a great setting for “Healthcare In Transition,” Xconomy’s first forum solely focused on the convergence of information technology and healthcare. Frank Moss, director of the Media Lab, entertained the audience  with a clip from an old “Saturday Night Live” skit that satirizes the backward medical practices of the Middle Ages, when bloodletting was thought to be a panacea for all manner of ailments. Moss’s use of the clip underscored his point that patients, not doctors, need to be the agents of change in the broken healthcare system. Then John Moore, a physician and researcher at the Media Lab, gave us a look at several technologies—including artificial caregivers that talk to patients, a touch-screen interface to foster collaboration between patients and doctors, and a device for patients to use in their homes to communicate with caregivers—which are meant to put patients in better control of their healthcare.

Our presenters dazzled with their inventions to solve problems in healthcare. And there are plenty of problems: the $2.5 trillion dollars spent on healthcare in the U.S. last year accounted for nearly 20 percent of our country’s gross domestic product (GDP), and there is no sign that the gargantuan costs will level off. In the midst of this morass are people who are treating their bodies like dumpsters and taking no responsibility for the expensive results, doctors whose interests are to see lots of these sick people rather than spend more time to keep them healthy, and health insurance outfits that are profiting from the general disarray in this system. Still, the raft of bugaboos in healthcare has given rise to new companies and ideas bent on putting out these fires. And we tried to feature as many of them as we could on Monday.

“We’re headed for disaster,” Moss said. “We have to look at a transformation of the healthcare system. We literally can’t afford to run this healthcare system to 30 percent of GDP, and [reversing this trend] is only going to be done by empowering ordinary people to take control of their healthcare—it’s the only way it’s going to be scalable.”

Here are some of the big ideas and technologies our speakers and guests presented to help the U.S. steer clear of this impending disaster:

—Patients who don’t take their medications as prescribed cost the U.S. healthcare system hundreds of billions of dollars annually. The Media Lab’s Moore gave us a look at his research on a computer-simulated view of HIV attacking immune cells, which he is using to show HIV patients what happens when they don’t take their medications. “We’re taking things that are difficult for patients to comprehend,” Moore said, “and we’re making them immediate and concrete.” He added that patients are responding to the vivid simulations of their disease and are taking their meds. Also, David Rose of Cambridge-based Vitality made a quick presentation on his company that markets Internet-connected pill bottle caps that glow to let patients know that it’s time to take their meds.

—Will computers ever replace doctors? Mike Gillam, director of the Microsoft Healthcare Innovation Lab, showed us projections that indicate that the volume of scientific knowledge accumulated over several decades, if not centuries, is expected to double over the next 12 years. These discoveries promise greater understandings of diseases such as cancer, as years of research have already proven that new mutations of tumors are identified all the time. “We start to ask, ‘In the future, are computers going to replace some of what clinicians do?'” Gillam said. “Our answer might be, ‘I hope so—who can keep all that [information] in their head?'”

—While doctors have access to a plethora of IT inventions for their jobs, most of them have chosen not to adopt these technologies. The executives and physicians on our health IT leaders panel were asked the simple question: Why? Roy Schoenberg, a founder and CEO of Boston-based online healthcare firm American Well, took an earnest stab at the answer to this seemingly simple question: “The key drivers for physicians to adopt something and change their practice is to make it, regretfully, not so much an improvement on patient care, not so much all of the other stuff, but it needs to help them practice their profession and make a decent living out of it.” Ed Park, the chief technology officer of the Watertown, MA-based healthcare software firm Athenahealth, noted that technologies like electronic health records have failed to win favor with doctors in the past because they have fallen short on improving the economics of physicians’ practices.

—A big recurring (and controversial) theme during the forum was the role of patients (or consumers) in driving changes in the healthcare system. We learned that San Francisco-based Keas was formed based on the founders’ hypothesis that consumers-driven choices about healthcare were the way of the future. (Jeff Fagnan, a partner at Atlas Venture, said that he believed in that vision and the founders enough to back Keas before the startup had completed a business plan.) Also, Moss said that he started the New Media Medicine program at the Media Lab because ordinary “people are the most underutilized resource in healthcare.”

—While many speakers agreed with Moss, some noted that we have a long way to go before the majority of patients do what they can to stay healthy. Half of healthcare costs stem from unhealthy behavior, “but we don’t hold ourselves accountable,” said Joseph Kvedar, director of Partners Healthcare’s Center for Connected Health in Boston. Daniel Palestrant, the physician who founded and serves as CEO of Cambridge-based Sermo, said that patients often lack the financial incentives to change their behaviors. “Before we blame everything on the system or the physicians,” Palestrant said, “part of this is a cultural problem that patients don’t want it. They want to be fat, they want to smoke, and they want a pill.”

We’ll have more photos and video from the forum really soon.