Monday, October 12, 2009

Nursing a Health 2.0 Hangover

So it’s the morning after the big Health 2.0 bash and the hangover is awful. My head is awash with flashing screens of medical alerts, rainbow-colored demos of virtual patients flitting from one personal health app to the next, and a blur of snappy, almost sneering answers to the same old questions about user adoption, ROI, and business models. I just spent two days getting high on health care’s highest high-concept, I can’t log into my own health plan’s portal to look up a simple eligibility thing, and it’s dull, gray cloudy morning in San Francisco.

Whither the 2.0 revolution you’ve been reading about all week? Was the blueprint unfurled before the cognoscenti by Matt Holt and the NorCal health care keiretsu? Was there an exhibitor booth handing out the magic bullets, along with the usual pens and mugs? Um - no.

Perhaps it’s my own perennial impatience with health care’s miserable status quo; perhaps it’s a sign of the inevitable coming of age for the 2.0 community, or space, or ecosystem, or whatever the corporate concept jockeys are calling a market this year. But at the risk of offending Matt and my other good friends in the keiretsu, this year’s conference felt for the first time oddly normative, almost reminiscent of other conferences like HIMSS and the World Health Congress, where Big New Health Care Ideas run headlong into The Great and Powerful Health Care Inertia Machine.

This year, 2.0 was the usual messy dialectic between e-fantasies deployable in “the cloud” and the deadening reality of who will buy, who will use, and who will pay for all this stuff back here on earth. As in years past, the conference pitted The Entrepreneurs against The Suits, with the indefatigable Adam Bosworth and Keas dancing on the tightrope strung between the two, with a useful-looking product and a credible sounding business model (the more mercenary features of which, I am guessing, are hidden somewhere below the surface of the demo). Not counting the ready-for-primetime Keas, its partner Quest Diagnostics, and the omnipresent and omnipatient folks at Microsoft, this year the establishment players at 2.0 seemed less willing than in years past to play straw man and/or nod enthusiastically at the magic tricks (depending on the choreography of the session) that define the art form. The Suits were there, in greater number than ever; but those on stage seemed far less willing than in years past to jump up and shout that yes, they and their entrenched organizations were indeed on board with all these wonderful ideas designed to make their organizations less relevant, less proprietary, and less in control of everything in health care.

In fact, many actually pushed back, some defiantly. And for a few very scary hours in the middle of day one of 2.0, it felt like The Suits were actually winning.

Maybe it was the order of things. The conference dedicated to technologies, tools and services emerging to support a health care system that actually engages and empowers patients opened up with a panel on “clinical groupware.” The discussion quickly de-morphed into a barely browser-based show-and-tell about what wired physicians are using in practice today, and the crowd grew oddly restive. And while I think he intended it as a statement about how often we have to pull back to jump forward, Stephen Sigal, a cardiologist on the panel, mentioned having to de-install his practice’s EMR, GE’s Centricity, for security reasons. (It was the first time I’d ever seen an entire conference audience lift their heads from their PDAs in perfect unison.)

Things went from oddly nervous to outright ugly in the next session, which empanelled several executives from various health plans to critique, aloud, various user applications, a scary mash-up of corporate sales presentation and American Idol.

Faced with the crisp and highly navigable health benefits manager tool from Intuit - one with concise drop-down menus explaining those geeky health benefits terms no one has ever really understood - Chris Ohman of Kaiser retorted that he would love to be able to provide that kind of helpful information to members, but the regulators would never allow it. Pesky regulators: always making it so hard for insurance companies to help people!

On the same panel, Mohan Nair - introduced as a “serial entrepreneur in health care information technology” but listed in the actual program as the Executive Vice President of Regence BlueCross BlueShield - let the crowd know that he had been at Regence “studying the problems of health care for the past six years and realized that the system is broken.” Hold the phone! He then threw a cold bucket of water on the panel’s spontaneous and important debate on the true cost impact of health 2.0 tools by stating, categorically, that none of the things designed to help people improve their behavior or lifestyles will reduce health costs. Really. (I guess all those Regence billboards in Portland last year about improving my behavior and lifestyle really were about risk-selection.)

With what little air remained in the room, Daniel Kogan of tiny HealthWorldWeb - like Nair, an entrepreneur with a day job - showed what the typical patient looking for a new provider on a health plan web site has to endure, then compared it to the same kind of search informed by actual knowledge of the patient’s wants and needs. The result was a narrowing of results from hundreds of physicians scattered willy-nilly across a market delivered by the health plan, to three physicians, all matched perfectly to the patient’s situation, delivered by the intelligent search.

Completely off the point but oddly on cue, Nair responded to Kogan’s throwdown by saying he was “tired of feeling demonized” by comments about health plans not being trusted. I would be tired of it too, if every time I opened up any credible research on the subject (cf. Markle/Connecting for Health, The Commonwealth Fund, Kaiser Family, et al., ad infinitum) I confronted the same perennial fact.

Nair’s remark inspired Fred Goldstein of U.S. Preventive Medicine to reveal that his company had seized upon that demonization with a marketing strategy not uncommon in the post-managed care era. “We realized that people don’t want to share with their health plan that they smoke, drink and hang out all night,” he said, “so we’re going direct to their employers.”

The conference’s opening morning 2.0 fantasy vs. 1.0 reality free-for-all ground to its inevitable, depressing halt when Ingrid Lindberg, “Customer Experience Officer” of Cigna - having announced earlier Cigna’s recent discovery that members were actually customers - wondered aloud how health 2.0 tools would ever gain market traction, given that “people spend 30 minutes picking their health insurance but four hours [a day] watching flat screen TVs.” Maybe it has something to do with the number of health insurance plans offered by Cigna’s actual predominant customer, i.e., large corporations, i.e., one to three choices of insurers - versus the 600+ choices, five or six of them pretty good, on my TV every day.

Luckily, the conference got back on the rails by lunchtime on the first day during some great hands-on creative tool-building exercises (which became fun team-building exercises), and stayed there for the duration. One manic and visionary entrepreneur after another explained how in the future, everything in health care will be digitized, our medical data will flow as freely as tap water (but never spill anywhere), and with all these nifty applications, no one will get sick, go to the hospital or die. More importantly, there were plenty of people with the wherewithal in the audience to fund, acquire, and/or execute on these bold visions. And the whole thing climaxed yesterday afternoon with a carnival-style presentation by several of the companies involved in the Health 2.0 Accelerator project. (“H2X,” as they call it and as far as I can tell, is an odd amalgam of personal health applications providers and infrastructure builders, who are working together to adopt data standards for information movement, e.g., CCR, and create a complex but seamless health information management experience for consumers across products and services in a sort of “co-opetition” (remember that 190s classic?) model.

Kudos to Marty Tenenbaum, founder of CommerceNet – an entrepreneur who no longer needs a day job - for conceptualizing, funding and mentoring this ambitious and interesting project. Because “acceleration” is the only thing health 2.0 needs at this point. Ideas, ambitious people, and gee-whizz technologies we got. And naysayers we got, as we saw on day one, many of whom occupy powerful positions within our health care “system.”

So maybe that’s the best cure for a health 2.0 hangover: the sobering perspective that this isn’t a party, there is a lot of hard and important work to do, and a real revolution in health care won’t be coming easy or fast. If the American polity defines systemic health reform as a few long overdue tweaks to the regulation of health insurance and a few billion in subsidies to people who consume ten times that in ER costs when their uninsured status boils over into medical catastrophe, then I suppose the whole health 2.0 movement really is moving at breakneck speed.

Back to work!

(cross-posted from The Health Care Blog -- Permalink)

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