9 Surprising Takeaways from 2017's JP Morgan Healthcare Conference

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The Infamous JP Morgan Healthcare Conference, which took place in San Francisco last week, attracts approximately 4,000 people every year. But in addition to the official, invite-only conference track, there are hundreds of “off-the-grid” meetings that take place all over the city, attracting another 20,000 people. Needless to say, it’s a crazy and somewhat surreal four days, featuring talks and panels and social events with people from all over the healthcare spectrum.

This year, four of us - Ahmed Albaiti, Sarah Amitay, Rebecca Lord, and I - went to San Francisco to attend the conference. Here’s what we learned:

1.  Healthcare investments are sky high.

This might not come as a surprise, but we heard over and over again at this conference that investments in healthcare are higher than they’ve ever been. Five years ago, investing in healthcare was novel. But now everyone is jumping in to the tune of $5 billion in 2016 alone. This could be because investors expect a better regulatory environment in the coming years, or because clinically focused innovations are more expensive. But either way, the current spend is definitely bigger than in years past.

2.  Investors are sticking around, too.

We met several investors who told us something surprising: they plan to stick around past a healthcare company’s first four years. One guy told us that he knew a healthcare company couldn’t flip in those four years, so he planned to give it seven. Others said they planned to be around for more than a decade. It appears as though investors are beginning to understand the process required to build a stronger healthcare system, which is great news for everyone.

3.  There are too many digital health solutions on the market right now.

If you feel overwhelmed by digital health, you’re not alone. Many people told us that they were fatigued by how many solutions were on the market right now. What should we do about this, then? Build solutions that can be scaled.

We often use the metaphor of Starbucks to explain why folks need to scale. Right now, we have  bunch of “small coffee shop” healthcare solutions. None of them have enough of the market share, so they’re just scraping by. But then, Starbucks shows up and rolls all the good things about the small coffee shops into one solution, aggregating the best of the best. We haven’t seen a Starbucks in digital health just yet, but everyone is waiting for it, especially investors. Partnerships that allow for a vision with scale will likely be key in the coming year.

4.  Population contrasts at the conference were stark.

Under seemingly torrential rain, the first contrast to hit us at the conference was the one between the “elite” crowd at the JP Morgan event, and the huge population of homeless living just blocks away.  The contrast continued “on the inside”, between the two business populations in San Francisco - the dark-suited, mostly white and male financial crowd at the JP Morgan official events, versus the dressed down, more diverse, younger tech & innovation crowd at the “off the grid” events”. After attending a few start-up focused events, we noticed that the whole thing felt pretty siloed, like folks weren’t connecting across those boundaries to solve big problems. We watched a few of the “suits” come to the events, look around for 30 seconds, and then leave, saying, “There’s no one here I need to meet with”.

5.  Controversy remains around what digital health "really is".

Throughout the conference’s social events, we had a number of conversations about how we should define digital health. Some folks believe that we’ve already defined digital health simply because people can use the phrase in a conversation and it’s meaning is known. But other folks we spoke with felt like it was a silly phrase - all of this work we do is health, so why should the “digital” matter? Those folks say that we should be thinking about the whole picture, not the delivery method.

We found ourselves landing on a hybrid perspective: Yes, it’s important to look at the entire experience of healthcare, not just the digital pieces. But digital health solutions should be just that: part of the solution to the larger puzzle.

6.  In some places, the speed of innovation remains fairly slow.

A lot of our clients work at larger, conservative companies which have small innovation centers in the midst of traditional workflows. And what we heard at this conference confirmed the sentiments we often hear from our clients: many legacy institutions haven’t fully bought into the use of digital therapeutics just yet, so there isn’t full support everywhere like we might assume.

7.  Better gender diversity is needed in tech and healthcare.

Two of our number were women, and both women noticed that they were significantly outnumbered at this conference, especially at the officially sanctioned JP Morgan events. People told us to expect grey hair and dark suits and a lot of men, and they weren’t wrong. In fact, MassBio led a prominent group of Biopharma leaders and investment executives to sign an open letter to commit themselves to acheiving better gender diversity in their industry, releasing it during the conference. This was shocking to us: In this day and age, is this really still going on? But it was also a reminder that in certain places, the answer to that question is still yes.

That said, the gender diversity problem was more noticeable at the official JPMorgan events. The “off the grid” events were much more diverse, much younger, and had many more women - especially at Startup Health and Health 2.0's Wintertech Conference. 

8.  Patient-centric care will be a "thing" in 2017 (we hope).

Medullan has always focused on patient-centricity, but for the most part, we tend to be much more aggressive about this tactic than other companies. But at this conference, we heard that phrase - “patient centricity” - over and over again. It was so heartening! We need to better connect with patients, to understand their real challenges and empower them. We also need to consider a patient’s entire care team, from providers to care givers. And people are beginning to talk about building systems that take all of this into account. Maybe this really will be the year of patient centricity.

9.  Social solutions are king.

Finally, we all had many conversations about a tough problem: In a world with thousands of healthcare solutions, how do you make yours the most sticky? How do you get people to stay with it? For example, MapQuest was first dominant player in the marketplace, but was easily stumped due to lack of “stickiness” when the Google behemoth arrived. But when Waze arrived, Google was stumped: they couldn’t beat the “stickiness” of the new app, which used social communities to predict the best driving route. Left with no options for competition, Google eventually bought Waze.

How do we create this in the context of healthcare? How do we make solutions sticky, so no one else comes in and eats our cake? The best solution we heard, here, was again idea of social community: finding a deeply engaged group who will use the solution, and use it well. This could be the way forward in a very crowded marketplace.

Overall, this conference made us feel incredibly optimistic, which was unexpected.

We’ve never been to an event that was so focused on the purpose of doing good in healthcare. Perhaps it was the combination of the “official” and “unofficial” events, but in all those busy rooms with many highly intelligent people, we never felt slighted. Everyone wanted to talk, and wanted to introduce us to someone else who might help us make progress with our work. We saw many real conversations about tough problems, which is the best way to build real solutions. We’re hopeful that the optimism we felt will be enough to keep all of us going as we chase down continued improvement.

Written By:
Jonathan H. Chen
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