JP Morgan Healthcare Conference Innovators: How Should We Measure Getting Closer to a Cure?

The annual J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference, the largest and most informative healthcare investment symposium in the industry, bringing together industry leaders, emerging fast-growth companies, innovative technology creators, and members of the investment community kicked off this week in San Francisco marking its 35th year. And when we see over 450 private and public companies along with 9000+ investors present innovative ideas that surface, one must wonder – why can’t the world find more cures for its diseases?

Ever since I was in high school I have been on asthma maintenance medications to keep this 6’-4” frame moving on the tennis court. At age 47, I am in excellent health but I wonder why I still need to take steroids to comfortably breathe. If I miss a dose of my Advair, it’s hard for me to even scale 10 steps to go to sleep at night. In this day and age, with all the money dedicated to R&D driven by the top scientific minds in the world, working daily in the labs and with patients to measure their improvements, we have got to find a better way to start benchmarking future cures to diseases like asthma. 

Perhaps drug companies can communicate with patients and the general public in an equally innovative way…by providing what I’ll call the Closer-To-A-Cure (CTAC) Index that indicates how much closer we’re getting as a society towards cures to cancers, respiratory diseases, you name it. Such an approach would put the trust back into big pharma companies and government agencies that oversee which drugs make it to market. While there are plenty of websites that the general public can access, one has to dig deep to find such reports that show that we’re getting closer to a cure-all society. Shouldn’t this be the goal for all of these companies? Please send your comments to We want to hear your thoughts and start a healthcare communications movement in the right direction!


Telemedicine’s Stumbling Blocks

The telemedicine industry, led by companies just as Teladoc, MDLive and American Well, is growing by any definition. Worldwide, telemedicine is expected to be a $35 billion business by the year 2020, according to Zion Research. The company uses the broadest definition of telemedicine – just about any form of electronic exchange of medical information.

A narrower definition – a patient consulting with a doctor on a non-emergency medical matter – is, I think, the most interesting form of telemedicine and one that will have the most impact on the delivery of care.

But what are the stumbling blocks that are keeping telemedicine from reaching its fullest potential and how can those blocks be overcome?

A look at news coverage of telemedicine around the country shows that state regulations are a big barrier to expanding telemedicine. For example, regulations developed decades ago, and probably with good reason at the time, prevent a physician not licensed in a state to treat a patient in that state or require that the patient must be examined by a physician in person.

Those kinds of regulations move the argument of whether telemedicine is an effective form of healthcare delivery from the market place to the legislature. Therein, lies the rub.

Now it’s political influence that’s required to help expand the impact of telemedicine. Both sides can argue all they want about the benefits and drawbacks of telemedicine. But arguments at the political level are not always about who or what is right. It’s who has the most influence.

Doctors, whom these regulations are designed for the most part to protect, are a potent political force in any argument over medical care. After all, they’re doctors. They’re perhaps the most well-educated and trusted professionals that we encounter. And we all encounter them.

How do you overcome the influence of doctors to advance the cause of telemedicine? Who do legislators listen to? 

Medical organizations certainly have potent lobbying arms. But a well-organized grassroots effort with a well-defined mission and articulate spokesperson can wage a media campaign that gets a legislator’s attention better than a lobbyist. 

WSJ Gives Telemedicine Some Love But is it Enough?

The telemedicine space is getting a lot of attention these days. The Wall Street Journal’s Melinda Beck did an excellent overview of the industry, key players, issues, upsides and downsides. Boston’s NPR affiliate had a roundtable discussion of the industry a few days later that included Beck as a panelist.The concept of telemedicine holds much appeal in these days when keeping people out of the hospital or doctor’s office is seen as a big cost saver. Having a doctor available by phone to answer questions could save a co-pay for the patient, missed work for the employer and a claim against the health insurance plan.In describing telemedicine companies, a big focus is how many people are covered by an individual company. But in talking to Patrick Spain, a founder of First Stop Health, an emerging company in the telemedicine space, the key number in evaluating the value of a telemedicine company isn’t how many people or companies it has as clients.The key number, according to Spain, is utilization: the number of people within a client company that actually use the telemedicine service. That’s where the ROI for the employer is found. Breaking it down further, Spain says that any utilization figures should break out the number of people who call, not just the quantity of calls. After all, a few people who use a telemedicine service over and over doesn’t have the same ROI as a broader number of people who may only use the service a few times.

Sun Protection: Vigilance and Diligence

It is heartening to see the amount of energy, research, and awareness that is being brought to bear on skin cancer, especially melanoma.  We were involved in the original American Academy of Dermatology’s Skin Cancer Awareness and Prevention program back in the mid-80s.  Those were the days when kids and adults actively sought a tan and used products that claimed to promote tanning.  Coppertone, one of the most well-known tanning lotions of the 1960s and 1970s, today touts as SPF (sun protection factor) number on its bottles.   

Since then, the effort to educate has expanded.  Groups like the Melanoma Research Foundation have taken up the cause, raising money to fund melanoma research and to educate people to be on the lookout for suspicious moles that may in fact be melanoma.  The cast of the TV hit, “The Big Bang Theory”, recently taped a public service announcement to raise awareness of melanoma in honor of a show’s young fan who had died of the disease.   

Skin cancers are the culmination of years of sun exposure so it is vital that groups educate parents to protect their children’s skin.  A lifelong habit like using sunscreen must be cultivated at a young age.

For those of us who came to sunscreen later in life, it’s important to remember that while melanoma is lethal, statistics cited by experts say that 98 percent of melanoma is curable if caught at the earliest stages. 

Catching melanoma early requires vigilance and diligence. Keep track of the moles you can see and have your spouse or partner help you keep track of the ones you can’t see like those on the back. 

And when in doubt, have it checked out by your physician or a specialist such as a dermatologist.

Immunotherapy: An Elegant Solution 40 Years in the Making

It sounds so elegant: supercharge the body’s immune system to fight cancer.  But a lengthy New York Times article underscores just how difficult such a simple-sounding solution can be.

One of the physicians profiled in the article came up with the idea nearly 40 years ago. He’s been pursuing the idea ever since.  Other physicians have joined the cause, pursuing their own theories on how to make the concept work.

According to the article, cell therapy is most likely to be effective against blood cancers such as leukemia. Solid tumors, the more common form of cancer, are also a target, but an effective cell therapy against them seems to be a lot farther off.

The article also profiles patients that have had their cancers wiped out.  Their gratitude, as you can imagine, is immense. But they had to endure what seems to me to be horrendous side effects.  Three patients in a clinical trial died, according to the article, when a second chemotherapeutic agent was added to the treatment regimen.    

But that is the nature of medical research. As brilliant as these researchers are, they are still human, who make mistakes and pursue theories that sometimes end up at a dead. But when they do, they go back, review their research and start down another, hopefully, more promising path.

Cancer is a tricky little devil. It wants to survive as much as any other living organism.  We tried poisoning it, burning it and starving it. In many cases, it just keeps coming back or doesn’t go away in the first place.

Fortunately, we have scientists who are willing to devote their lives and their talents to fighting cancer and have the determination to find that one elegant solution that’s out there waiting to be discovered.