Last week I went to three events that were part of Health Innovation Week in the San Francisco Bay area: HealthCamp SFBay, DC to VC: Investing in Healthcare IT Summit, and the main event, Health 2.0. The theme of the entire week was applying Information Technology to meeting the challenges of health care in this era of rising costs and an aging (and increasingly unfit) population. The mood was an upbeat one of eager entrepreneurs finding a vast new market where they could do well by doing good. Some seasoned investors warned that the health care industry is conservative and slow to adopt new methods and that many of the business models presented lack a clear path to revenue or even evidence of understanding the convoluted health care payment system, but that warning didn't dampen the overall enthusiasm.
Jeff Goldsmith laid out the problem in the first of two engaging and entertaining keynotes. In addition to the much discussed problems of an overeating population (right) and shortage of doctors and nurses, he decried the lack of innovation in healthcare IT, which he attributed to the risk-averse "management menopause" of public companies run by lawyers and marketing people rather than scientists and engineers. He was followed by Tim O'Reilly who didn't exactly disagree but who predicted the much-needed innovation would come from the influx of IT people who are new to the health care space. He pointed out that we have plenty of data but need to make better use of it in systems that make that data meaningful and make it useful in real time.
The opportunity to unleash entrepreneurial creativity was the focus of Todd Park's efforts, which he described at all three events I attended. As the CTO of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services he has launched Data Liberacion, a.k.a. the Community Health Data Initiative. Modeled on the way NOAA provides weather data to organizations such as The Weather Channel to do their own analysis, HHS is publishing data and making APIs available so developers can create Web 2.0 (a term O'Reilly coined) style applications such as the Blue Button project to allow veterans to download their data from the VA system.
The bulk of the program at Health 2.0 was composed of demonstrations and presentations by companies developing innovative health care applications, leading off with ShareCare, the latest effort by Jeff Arnold (WebMD, HowStuffWorks) to build a valuable consumer Web property. ShareCare has signed up an all-star cast (Oprah, Dr. Oz) and an army of experts to answer health-related questions, including a real time video link to doctors using MDLiveCare and VSee.
The other products demonstrated at the show were aimed at consumers, clinicians and employers, providing access to information, encouraging health behaviors and helping patients get the best price for their treatment.
The audience was at least as interesting as the presenters. Of the 1,000+ attendees, the vast majority were developers and vendors, but random hallway conversations were also likely to yield insurers, government officials, venture capitalists and even the occasional practicing clinician. Probably the best part of the conference was the high level of energy, optimism, and creativity, all of which are sorely needed. The one bright spot in the contentious arena of health care reform is that regardless of their position on how health care should be organized and paid for, everyone agrees that innovation is key.