Bernard Tyson, Chairman and CEO of Kaiser Permanente, speaks plainly when it comes to where technology fits into his $50 billion healthcare business. “For me, it is the centerpiece,” Tyson says. “The most important investment we are making right now is around technology.”
The U.S. healthcare industry, led by people like Tyson, has long turned toward technology when it comes to illness. Better surgical instruments, medical devices, improved imaging, and novel drugs have all been born of the efforts of all kinds of engineers and scientists. But what Tyson refers to is greatly expanding the role of technology throughout the $3 trillion U.S. healthcare market. To make it a constant companion and tool for patients and medical practitioners, not just during times of illness, but to help keep people from getting sick in the first place.
If there was ever an invitation for tech entrepreneurs to remake a massive industry, Tyson, along with former Surgeon General Dr. Regina Benjamin and Lloyd Dean, CEO of another multi-billion-dollar healthcare provider, Dignity Health, are extending it.
“The technology applications are there in other industries, but healthcare continues to lag almost every other business segment in this country,” Dean says. “I ask all the time, what is our ATM? The ATM revolutionized and changed how you deal with your financial organization. You don’t go to banks. You don’t have to.”
In a conversation between the three healthcare heavyweights, there was universal agreement that not only does U.S. healthcare need to change; it’s poised to do so. But just how technology will shape the future of how we take care of ourselves looks different for each.
For Benjamin, who championed prevention during her tenure as Surgeon General as the key driver for better health and lower medical costs, developing services and devices that put healthcare in the hands of individuals is vital. She pointed to the Up band on her wrist, and called out other devices coming from startups like Fitbit as examples heading in the right direction. “We don’t need to always tell people what they need to do, we need to get them engaged enough that they want to do,” Dr. Benjamin says. We need to have that information at our fingertips to be able to make good decisions, and to have fun doing it. You don’t have to call it health, call it anything, but give people those tools, those abilities, that through technology to make good decisions to make good choices and to become much healthier.”
Benjamin was quick to point out the potential threat from all those devices and services pushing information to everyone 24/7, no matter the positive intent. “The threat is the data,” Benjamin says. “Big data has wonderful opportunities, you can see how the flows are going, you can see how the trends are going, but who owns that data? That is going to be a major part of the equation, and there are ethical questions around this that we haven’t even started to address.”
Tyson points to the hairball collection of technologies that have stitched together patients, doctors and insurance companies as an obvious starting point for change.
“The healthcare industry is the most fragmented industry walking around, everything has been built in silos,” Tyson says. “There are billions of dollars just sitting there in the waste of what it takes to bring the pieces together.”
Getting deeper into how he wants technology to transform Kaiser, Tyson described the smartphone as a tool to bring patients and doctors together; of education tools he envisions that can keep doctors and nurses current on the best practices and medical management. And finally, of ways to give patients a louder voice.
“If I was right now working in the tech field I would be trying to figure out how to integrate all kinds of information focused front and center on the consumer,” Tyson says. “Tools that equips the consumer to tell the healthcare industry, ‘I want this to be different, I want that to be different.’
“Technology is going to give us the platform to continue to transform healthcare. I don’t want anyone to have to step out of the 21st century when they interact with Kaiser Permanente.”
The trick in dragging healthcare into the 21st century, Dean says, is building it to last. “My fear, and the threat, is that even as we are spending billions and Bernard (Tyson) is spending billions, we’re still not dealing with cloud technology,” Dean says. “We’re still building boxes, and by the time we get some of these systems implemented they are going to be antiquated.
“My pitch to entrepreneurs is simple: You have the answers. Healthcare is the next bastion for each and every one of you. Healthcare is a place where you can make money, and make a difference. We need you, because if we don’t address this today and seize this moment, I am not sure that this country is ever going to do it.”