Three questions to ask about new technology and other reflections on the premier health care investing confab

Last week, thousands of health care executives and investors descended on San Francisco for the annual J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference.

The high-profile event is known for generating business news in the biotech, health insurance and hospital sectors. The CEOs of most major health care companies present at the conference. And there’s always a megawatt keynote speaker. (This year it was Bill Gates).

I’ve attended and reported on the event in years past, being based in San Francisco, and this year in particular was notable for some innovative articles and reflections from journalists who were there.

In the age of #metoo and #timesup, Rebecca Robbins and Megana Keshavan of Stat wrote a clever article pointing out that men named Michael outnumbered female CEOs presenting at the conference. Men represented an astounding 94 percent of the 540 high profile presentations at the gathering, they reported. No surprise this was the top trending article on Twitter for #JPM18 conference news this week.

A few weeks before the conference start, the organizers announced a ban on media attending Q&A breakout sessions that immediately follow the formal presentations by health care executives. These breakout sessions – which typically happen in an adjacent, smaller room – are valuable to the public because the discussions are more freewheeling. They are really helpful for journalists to get a sense of the thinking behind the announcements made during the formal presentations. After an outcry, J.P. Morgan event organizers changed course and agreed to allow reporters in. I noticed during the conference that attendees began posting spreadsheets online of when to access webcasts of presentations, and there seemed to be a spike in information-sharing for this notoriously insular event.

Hard-working beat reporters including Bob Herman at Axios, Tara Bannow and Shelby Livingston at Modern Healthcare and Max Nisen of Bloomberg broke down the big financial news coming out of the conference.

Juliet Preston at MedCity News analyzed prior year predictions for biopharma that came out of the J.P. Morgan conference and whether they panned out over the following year. The results made for a valuable reality check going into this year’s event.

Barbara Feder Ostrov of Kaiser Health News wrote a thoughtful  piece on the disconnect between the multibillion dollar deals and the “uncertainty for the millions of ordinary Americans“ who access the health care system and pay for it.

That theme of disconnect came across on Wednesday, when I popped into Wintertech, an offshoot event happening at the Julia Morgan Ballroom on California Street, a few blocks down from the J.P. Morgan conference digs at the tony Westin St. Francis on Union Square.

I walked into the ballroom at the start of a talk by Mark Ganz, president and CEO of Cambia Health Solutions, the Portland, Ore.-based umbrella company of six health plans and software and mobile applications.

What Ganz said to tech investors and founders in the audience caught my attention.

“Is what you’re doing paying it forward or paying yourself?“ Ganz asked.

He went on: “In conversations at J.P. Morgan, on stage and amongst yourselves, think about whether the average customer – someone who shops at Walmart – would understand what you are talking about. Would they be bored? Would they be frustrated?”

Ganz said he asks himself three questions every day:

  1. Do I have hope?
  2. Can what I am doing be a catalyst for change?
  3. Am I willing to risk it all?

If the answer to any of these is no, then he said he can no longer be an effective leader.

Ganz told the audience that he heard from start ups this week something that makes him “want to vomit” – they come to him asking how to position their tech products so they can get a payment from an insurance company.

“This is not about sticking your needle in the artery that is flowing through the vast wealth of the health care system,“ Ganz said with force. He called out, in particular, pharmaceutical companies that jack up drug prices for breathless profit.

The three questions that Ganz asks himself every day are good ones for journalists to ask when they write about any new technology entering the health care system.

  1. Will this product or service give patients and/or providers hope?
  2. Can it be a catalyst for change in some way?
  3. And is this company willing to risk it all to make the system better?

If the people who made the product can’t provide a clear answer to these three questions, then why should your audience care about it?

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