10 Takeaways from Our Health IT Forum: Big Data, Robots, & More

This much is clear: healthcare is changing, and technology is helping lead the charge.

But there are big challenges everywhere you turn. And we heard about a lot of them—as well as a lot of opportunities for entrepreneurs and investors—at our “Healthcare in Transition” forum yesterday at the Microsoft NERD center in Kendall Square, Cambridge, MA. Huge thanks to our hosts, sponsors, and attendees for making the event so successful.

I won’t try to recap the whole conference, but here are 10 things I heard (or interpreted) that got my attention:

1. “Data is like the red pill” (from “The Matrix”). That was Bryan Sivak, the chief technology officer of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. He was talking about the idea that access to new streams of health information—by patients, doctors, and insurers—will help people make new decisions around the cost and quality of healthcare. And, like the red pill, you can never go back.

2. Post-election themes in the business of healthcare: the benefits of cloud services for insurers, big data for patients and providers, and less monopoly in the industry in general. This was from a panel that included top execs from Athenahealth, CareCloud, HealthEdge, and Xerox.

3. Venture capitalists are still wary of healthcare investments. OK, VCs are wary of pretty much everything. They have to be careful with their funds. But the good folks from Polaris, Boston Millennia Partners, and Psilos—despite their successes—seemed rather subdued when it came to talking about the big opportunities in the field. Probably just didn’t want to tip their hand.

4. Colin Angle from iRobot was joined by the robot RP-VITA, who stood in for InTouch Health’s Yulun Wang (appearing remotely), in a presentation about the future of telemedicine and robotics (pictured above). Who doesn’t like a robot that navigates around the room and can act as a virtual/remote doctor or nurse? But the big challenges of telemedicine include cost (Angle said “the price of the technology will go down”) and insurance reimbursement (Wang said that with healthcare reform, reimbursement will become less relevant). And before all that, Angle said his robotic inspiration came not from R2-D2 and C-3PO, but from the little rolling robot on the Death Star (the one that Chewbacca roars at).

5. It’s always hard to sum up Stephen Wolfram in one bullet point, but I would single out the idea of “how to do diagnosis algorithmically.” Wolfram argued that today’s process of diagnosis and treatment as a game of probabilities doesn’t have any deep meaning. “This notion that there’s a fixed number of diseases, that’s not right,” he said. Instead, the future lies in running some sort of computation on patients to improve their health. So instead of fixed drugs that bind to something, he said, we could have “algorithmic drugs” that are programmable from outside and run simulations to decide whether to zap a cell or not.

6. “Digital health is missing its PayPal mafia.” That was Malay Gandhi from the Rock Health accelerator program. Indeed, the field of health IT is still in its early days and is looking for some big breakout wins from which to spawn lots of new companies.

7. “Design is king and queen when you’re building something for consumers,” said John Morey from MyRozi, who described his company as “like Mint.com and Airbnb” for health. And that’s as true in health IT as it is for Facebook or any consumer tech play. Morey also urged entrepreneurs to “focus on the problem— you have to have that problem you’re solving.”

8. An important healthcare tipping point lies with the consumer, said Rick Lee from Healthrageous. “The burden is shifting from doctors and nurses to us,” he said, comparing health management to retirement planning, which has shifted from hands-off pension plans to hands-on 401(k) accounts.

9. “The good thing about healthcare being 15 years behind everything [else] is big data is still relevant to us.” That was Graham Gardner from Kyruus, who described his startup as “Moneyball for doctors.” He said he thinks of big data as a mirror that can show what doctors are best at, and what they’re not so good at, so they can be better matched to the right situations.

10. “I wouldn’t bet that the Aetnas and Blue Crosses are going to go away.” That was Frank Ingari of NaviNet, talking about the notion that health insurers will be big losers as the sector gets disrupted. “The industry might be disaggregated or recombined,” he said, but someone still has to do the gigantic claim systems, actuarial accounting, and so forth.

Last point: On the topic of whether healthcare entrepreneurs should look outside the U.S. to other countries, Ingari said, “If you’re looking for disruption, this is the one that’s going to be disrupted the most.”

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and Editor of Xconomy Boston. E-mail him at gthuang [at] xconomy.com. Follow @gthuang

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