Speaking via Skype at the first annual "WIRED Health Conference: Living By Numbers," on Tuesday, former Intel Chairman and CEO Andy Grove issued a call to arms to free healthcare data, making his case for radical price transparency in medicine.
Presented in partnership with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the WIRED forum, held in New York City, convened 200 experts from medicine, science, technology and business as it sought to spotlight the myriad new opportunities to bring data to bear on real-time decision-making for doctors, researchers, hospitals and consumers.
In his session, Grove, the semiconductor pioneer, who has battled Parkinson's disease in recent years, offered his up-close perspective on a healthcare system where it's in providers' "commericial interest" to be opaque about price.
But the business and technology guru is alarmed at what he sees as a "consolidation of insurers moving in the opposite direction of transparency."
Grove lays out his case for reform in a new cri de coeur in WIRED, titled "Peeling Away Healthcare’s Sticker Shock."
Recent decades have seen "major strides in technology of all kinds," Grove writes. "Improvements in semiconductors have allowed faster computation and communications, as well as the construction of databases that outdo themselves every year." Nonetheless, in healthcare, "1950s-era thinking still rules the day, and irrational and inexplicable pricing is routine."
The industry, he writes, "plays a gigantic game of Blind Man’s Bluff, keeping patients in the dark while asking them to make life-and-death decisions. The odds that they will make the best choice are negligible and largely depend on chance. Patients need to have data, including costs and their own medical histories, liberated and made freely available for thorough analysis."
But with so many entrenched forces invested in maintaing the status quo at work, WIRED executive editor Thomas Goetz asked, where will the motivation for making that change come from?
Said Grove: "From you and I, if we get sufficiently pissed."
The slate of sessions at the live-streamed WIRED conference showcased the many ways data can be deployed to improve health and wellness. United States Army Brigadier General Rhonda Cornum, MD, former director of the Army's Comprehensive Soldier Fitness initiative, explained how data is crucial to her work.
Cornum's helicopter was shot down in 1991 during the Gulf War, and she suffered two broken arms, a broken finger, a gunshot wound and other injuries. She was taken captive as POW and was abused by her captors.
Despite those ordeals, Cornum's maxim is that "Nobody’s ever died from pain." And she is driven by the idea of "post-traumatic growth."
To prepare service members to be that stoic in adversity, however, proper "psychological fitness training" for the traumas of war is essential. "The time to train for the race is not after you have run it," said Cornum.
Thankfully, the military has "incredible amounts of data" that have been put to work toward this end. Through smarter use of information – "What I have found is we have historically measured success with something by compliance with it, rather than whether it had the desired effect," she said – the Army has helped train a class of soldiers who are "more psychologically fit."
Another session at the conference spotlighted the work of Nicholas Christakis, director of the Human Nature Laboratory at Harvard University.
There's "a lot of talk about personal data" in healthcare nowadays, said Christakis, but even more important than individuals' wellness behavior is the "way that networks of people affect each other's health."
"Social behaviors flow contagiously from one person to another," he said, just as fashions and germs can spread. "There can be emotional contagion."
By studying huge data sets such as those maintained by the long-ongoing Framingham Heart Study, and mining voluminous depersonalized Facebook information, Christakis has gained insight about the ways "clusters" of people affect rates of obesity, smoking and more.
If a person's friend becomes obese, for example, there's a 57 percent chance they will become obese as well. If it's a friend of a friend, there's a 20 percent chance.
Christakis' work with this data holds great promise for epidemiology and for targeting delivery of public health interventions. But there's a lot of work left to do. And there's always room for more data.
He mentioned the knowledge that could be gleaned if, say, "a couple thousand people in New York wire themselves up" and report on their flu status. If a researcher also knew of their personal networks – by linking the personal data with phone and email data, it could be a boon for stemming the spread of disease.
Toward that end, said Christakis, "We should be able to donate our data to science as we do our bodies for anatomical dissection."
Watch the WIRED sessions here.