Can tech help shift the focus of health care from illness to wellness?

Tech investor Esther Dyson has focused her attention to enabling healthcare innovation. She sees a much more effective and lucrative opportunity for tech and startups to foster wellness.


From left to right: Chris Kay, Ted Smith, Roy Beveridge, Esther Dyson

Image: Jason Hiner/TechRepublic

"I got tired of [looking for the] 'Uber for shoeshines'," said Esther Dyson.

The technology investor and former tech journalist wanted to do something more meaningful. When she looked at healthcare, she saw a lot of money being spent but not a lot of investment in new ideas. She noticed that the US healthcare system is focused on people with illnesses and chronic diseases, but it's far cheaper help them before they get sick.

"Why are we spending so much on healthcare, when we can keep people healthy for 1/10 the cost," said Dyson on Monday at a panel that she led on wellness at the Louisville Innovation Summit.

Louisville is one of the epicenters of the US healthcare industry and the conference focused on the use of technology and data to improve health and wellness. The 2016 conference especially focused on how tech can improve aging and empower older adults.

SEE: IBM's Watson Health, American Diabetes Association partner on cognitive apps, analytics (ZDNet)

Dyson, who was formerly an editor at large for TechRepublic's sister site CNET, wanted to see someone create "an X Prize for health care." When she didn't find anyone, she helped launch "The Way to Wellville" challenge, which is sponsoring wellness-based healthcare projects in five US communities over five years. Each locality is focused on creating a healthier community based on a specific metric that can be measured with data.

The Way to Wellville challenge received 42 applicants from 26 states, before choosing five in August 2014:

  • Clatsop County, Oregon (focused on chemical dependency, mental health, obesity, food access, prenatal care, and time banking)
  • Greater Muskegon, Michigan (focused on smoking, adult obesity, post-secondary education, and social/emotional support)
  • Lake County, California (focused on preventive services to address obesity and other chronic health issues, substance abuse, and mental and emotional health)
  • Niagara Falls, New York (focused on improving social determinants of health such as transportation, housing and employment; address teen pregnancy, childhood obesity and other chronic diseases by coordinating community services)
  • Spartanburg, South Carolina (focused on access to care, obesity, kindergarten readiness, and "social capital" and how it links to health indicators)

At the time that the five communities were chosen, Dyson said, "The idea is not just to make a measurable difference in five places, but to demonstrate how a comprehensive approach to health can work and be replicated in many other communities around the country."

On Monday at the Louisville Innovation Summit, Dyson said that it's about changing the mindset of governments and communities that it's not about providing free healthcare but investing in activities that improve health and wellness long before people get sick.

Dyson talked about the fact that people who need surgeries or other medical procedures have a much higher chance of success if they go into the procedure with better overall health.

With the Way to Wellness program, Dyson didn't want to do pilot programs. She wanted to invest in communities that were eager to dive in and actually start helping people. Then they could learn, grow, and improve as they go.

Lots of technologies are playing into the focus on wellness including big data analytics, mobile apps, wearable technologies, the Internet of Things, health data transparency, and the interoperability of health systems.

SEE: How analytics may improve stroke patients' quality of healthcare

Others on the panel with Dyson talked about the innovations that are needed in healthcare and the ways we approach healthcare.

"Instead of investing in health care, we need to invest in civilization," said Ted Smith, CEO of Revon Systems (and former general manager of TechRepublic and ZDNet). Smith's point was that the money we spend in transportation, infrastructure, and other community-building activities can have a huge impact on health and wellness.

Smith, also former chief innovation officer of the City of Louisville, said "health in all policies" is one of the commitments made by Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer. In the age of big data, companies now look at the health of a city's population before deciding whether to relocate or build an office there, said Smith. Healthier people are more productive, creative, and efficient.

Another panelist, Dr. Roy Beveridge, chief medical officer of Humana, said that healthcare is moving from a fee-for-service model to a fee-for-value model. "We should encourage this in all facets of the health system. We shouldn't just pay people for doing things. We should pay people for results." That will incent healthcare providers to be faster, better, and more efficient, Beveridge said.

When the session was opened up to questions from its audience of healthcare industry leaders, the question that came up over and over again in different forms was how to improve the ability of healthcare providers to share patient data. There were complaints that the current system slows down access, hinders continuity between providers, and harms patient care by tying up healthcare workers in so much data entry and data management.

This also has direct implications for patients who try to get their own medical records to bring with them to all of their providers. A decade ago, Dyson famously published her genome on the web as part of the Personal Genome Project. She said, "It was easy to put my genome up, but it's really hard to go out and get all your medical records."

Beveridge stressed that number one innovation healthcare needs is data interoperability. "We have it with banks, we have it with most other systems," he said. "We've got to get it with healthcare."

Also see