At MIT conference, industry leaders attack health care challenges

Hospital execs, public policy experts join faculty and students in wide-ranging discussion of research and innovation

December 5, 2013

MIT PhD candidate Clarissa Cooley discusses low-cost portable MRI scanners at the Innovations in Health Care conference. Photo: David Sella

MIT PhD candidate Clarissa Cooley discusses low-cost portable MRI scanners at the Innovations in Health Care conference. Photo: David Sella

There has been a lot of talk about the state of the U.S. health care system. But at least one expert questions whether it should be called a system at all.

“There is no health care system in this country,” Kevin Tabb, president and CEO of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, said at MIT this week. “There’s no such thing as a system [here]. There are in many other countries. We have a bunch of disparate, siloed, fragmented pieces. We do not act as a system, we don’t coordinate, there is nothing that is cohesive about the provision of health care in this country.”

The health care system, or lack of it, is arguably the nation’s Big Problem. The challenge is multi-faceted, encompassing not only a need for innovation in technology, service, and organizational structures, but an equal need for change in both how Americans pay for health care and how much of it they pay for.

   Acting U.S. Surgeon General Boris Lushniak<br/>Photo: David SellaActing U.S. Surgeon General Boris Lushniak
Photo: David Sella

Tabb, one of a cadre of industry leaders and academics who joined the MIT Innovations in Health Care Conference Dec. 3-4, put his organization’s problem in clear terms.

“We have no room for error,” he said. “Precious little room for the innovations that we’re talking about,” he said. “It makes it very difficult when you talk about investing in innovation [and risking failure].”

Beth Israel, Tabb said, operates at a two percent margin. For others, the books are even tighter.

“I would love a two percent margin,” Nancy Gagliano, chief medical officer at CVS CareMark, told Tabb on the panel on which they both appeared.

Yet a presence at the conference demonstrated the commitment to health care innovation from everyone in the room.

For two days, solutions to health care problems were pushed, pulled, kicked around, dreamed up, and occasionally dismissed. Sponsored by the MIT Sloan Initiative for Health Systems Innovation and the MIT Industrial Liaison Program, the conference brought industry leaders, academics, consultants, and public policy specialists together for that very purpose.

The conference featured a showcase of MIT student work that included 30 different ideas and nascent inventions. First prize went to Sana AudioPulse, an application that uses cellphones to test for hearing impairment in newborns in rural and poor populations around the globe. MIT PhD candidate Marzyeh Ghassemi, part of the team developing the technology, presented the company during the showcase.

MIT Sloan faculty also presented new research, often conducted with industry partners. MIT Sloan professor Retsef Levi presented an overview of research that faculty at the School is conducting in major hospitals, including his own work improving surgical scheduling and patient flow at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. Other faculty presentations looked at the use of big data and analytics in care for premature infants and selection of chemotherapy treatments, among other topics.

Health care has been a growing area of focus for MIT Sloan, which recently launched a health care certificate that can be pursued by students from across MIT. The newest class of MBA candidates includes students from the medical profession, many seeking better ways to manage and lead the industry.

Zen Chu, a senior lecturer in health care innovation, spoke at the conference to discuss Hacking Medicine, a unique group run by MIT students that innovates in health care through short hackathons conducted on campus and at hospitals and health care organizations in Boston and around the world.

Hacking Medicine brings entrepreneurs and medical practitioners together to solve problems ranging from prescription delivery and adherence to clinical scheduling. The organization has spawned more than a dozen new companies since its launch in 2011.

“We don’t talk about solutions [first]. We don’t talk about technologies,” Chu said. “We really start with needs.”

Chu said the Hacking Medicine group brings together medical providers—hospitals, doctors, pharmaceutical companies—who might otherwise view each other at competitors.

The conference also included a series of keynote speakers, including Acting U.S. Surgeon General Boris Lushniak, who closed the first day of the event. Lushniak asked attendees to pursue innovations to enhance the nation’s preventative care efforts, including cultural improvements in healthy eating and efforts to reduce and eventually eradicate tobacco use.