Smoke on the Water: Fireworks at the Cleveland Clinic Medical Innovation Summit


I spent the early part of this week attending the Cleveland Clinic Medical Innovation Summit and, despite the fact that the Cleveland Clinic stubbornly insists on holding its conference in Cleveland (aka The Mistake on the Lake), it was well worth attending.

Cleveland is an interesting town. Once upon a time, when old white men roamed the earth in cars driven by chauffeurs, Cleveland was the nation’s fifth largest city and had the highest number of Fortune 500 headquarters of any US city. Today, the Cleveland Clinic is the largest employer in the city, which is known also for a river that used to spontaneously combust and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (the perfect song for this occasion is clearly Smoke on the Water). In a way Cleveland is the perfect place to honor aging rock stars, as they can pick up a statuette and an angioplasty on the same trip. By the way, the river doesn’t catch fire anymore I’m told. I was worried because the Clinic hosted a pretty impressive fireworks display over Lake Erie for their 1500 guests and no doubt most of us expected to see even more of a show as the embers hit the water.

Each year the conference has a specific clinical theme. This year’s theme was supposedly cardiology, but that was just a cover. The real theme of the conference, while not explicitly stated, was how the healthcare system is changing and how challenging the environment for innovation has become when it comes to medical devices. Yes, there were several talks about new approaches to treating heart patients and also those with peripheral vascular disease, but the most interesting discussions were focused elsewhere.

The conference audience, in addition to featuring lots of people from the Clinic itself, included the who’s-who of medical device companies, large and small, as well as many healthcare investors and innovators. Because there was so much content at the conference, I’m going to highlight just a few notable discussions and quotes, many of which were made by some pretty high profile folk.

One of the most prevalent themes of the conference was how the confluence of policy changes and economic drivers has changed the locus of control in healthcare from the providers to the payers. It’s not unusual to hear a bunch of doctors complaining how the payers, by which I mean mainly the large insurance companies and CMS, are taking control of the world and ruining medicine. I am pretty sure that this is what physicians who are romancing other physicians whisper in each others’ ears, “Darling, I love you, and don’t health insurers piss you off!?” What was weird was that there was not a single such payer in the room to debate this issue or even defend their alleged hijacking of the system. Not one. No United Healthcare, no Aetna, no CMS (from the payment side-the Innovation Center got to speak at the end of the last day), no one. I thought this was a pretty big oversight.

Moreover, there was not a meaningful acknowledgement by any of the very large employers there, except Xerox and GE, that they themselves are really the large payers that are getting murdered by rising healthcare costs. The CEOs of Medtronic, St. Jude, Pfizer, Abbott and Merck, all of whom were there, must have to fight to keep their own heads from exploding when it comes to how they think about rising healthcare costs. Selling more stuff at high prices grows their top line revenue but … Next Page »

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Lisa Suennen is an independent consultant, board member of AngioScore, and a former managing member of the Psilos Group, as well as the co-author of Tech Tonics: Can Passionate Entrepreneurs Heal Healthcare With Technology? and author of the blog Venture Valkyrie. Follow @venturevalkyrie

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