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Posted at 02:19 PM ET, 02/14/2012

Health care innovation: From regulation to ‘bigger brains’


A doctor stands next to a sick woman at the Dutch Royal Philips Electronics Hospital research facility at its Eindhoven-based Research Laboratories on October 18, 2011, on the day of its inauguration. (LEX VAN LIESHOUT - AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

Andrew von Eschenbach finds it surprising that people are so willing to share nearly every detail of their lives online but suddenly become squeamish over electronic health care records.

The former FDA commissioner joined GE’s senior vice president and chief marketing officer Beth Comstock and Cleveland Clinic executive director Chris Coburn for a roundtable discussion on the future of innovation in health care. The event was held on the second day of the “American Competitiveness: What Works” conference organized by GE at the Andrew W Mellon auditorium in Washington. The panel was moderated by NBC chief medical editor Nancy Snyderman.

The panel covered the gamut in exploring innovation in health care technology and the regulatory policy that stands to spur or constrain it.

GE’s Comstock spoke of the company’s investing heavily in software to give their products “bigger brains.” Comstock was also excited about informatics, IT, and the ability for machines to talk to health care practitioners.

For Coburn, big data held a particular fascination, as it does with a number of his peers in the field and many of the industry’s thought leaders outside of it.

“We are certainly at the dawn of the application of big data in health care,” said Coburn.

“There’s too much value at stake for us to leave it behind,” said Comstock.

But the excitement for the future of health care technology was tempered by the high regulatory bar, one that must take into account the life-and-death implications of the products that stand to be used on people in their most physically and emotionally vulnerable moments.

According to von Eschenbach, it’s all about how new developments are presented to people. “If you’re telling them this is for them, it’s amazing how cooperative and open people can be,” he said.

“Never,” said former FDA chief when asked if the day would ever come when the government would fund the “outlaw” innovators and the unknown “smart kid” (think the Mark Zuckerberg of health care) in an effort to get off the ground ideas deemed “too radical ... too far out” to get funding.

Inventors who get government funding such as NIH grants, said von Eschenbach, go with the same tried and true ideas, and then leverage that to beg, borrow or steal for the money they need for their more radical, passion-driven experiments.

The United States was the leader in the life science revolution with the study of the cell, said von Eschenbach. “There’s a mad scramble out there to begin to catapult out in front,” he said, “but, again, there’s no place like the USA.”

But that catapult would need to be calibrated to launch an innovation through the narrow hoop of FDA regulations, which are often seen by industry leaders as unnecessarily cumbersome.

“It would help a great deal if we could adjust those responsibilities,” to prioritize urgent health care needs, said the former FDA chief. Pressed to

Asked if he was then in favor of a potential split of the individual components of the FDA, von Eschenbach said: “I don’t think you need to break it up. This is exactly the wrong time to split food out.”

But regulations, said GE’s Comstock, “can be a good thing. ... It has a role for innovation when done well.”

“Regulations are good,” said von Eschenbach agreed, but added, that “there needs to be much more collaboration between the regulator and the ...discoverer.”

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By  |  02:19 PM ET, 02/14/2012

Categories:  Business, Health, Technology

 
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