Connected Health Symposium looks for answers to healthcare's troubling questions

By Eric Wicklund
11:18 PM

As Joseph Kvedar, MD, director of Partners Healthcare’s Center for Connected Health, looked out upon a crowded ballroom at Boston’s Park Plaza Hotel Thursday afternoon, he was reminded of a concept hatched roughly two decades ago.

“We had the crazy idea that the doctor and the patient didn’t have to be in the same room together,” he recalled.

This week, more than 1,000 healthcare executives, physicians, nurses and IT experts joined him to point out just how far that crazy idea has evolved.

The two-day Connected Health Symposium, in its eighth year, brings experts from around the world together to discuss the latest in technology and concepts designed to drive healthcare innovation. Sub-titled “Driving Quality Up and Costs Down: New Technologies for an Era of Accountability,” it featured, among other sessions, debates on the effectiveness of the accountable care organization, panel discussions on mobile technology, social media and consumer health and keynotes from writer and surgeon Atul Gawande, MD, Nuance Healthcare’s Janet Dillione and none other than the Crown Prince of Denmark.

“What we want to do is tell the healthcare story,” said Dillione.

Her point was that in today’s troubled healthcare industry, technology has the opportunity to put all medical information at the doctor’s – and the patient’s – fingertips at a moment’s notice. That it doesn’t, or can’t, is indicative of a delivery system that’s gotten far too complex for its own good.

“The problem we face is the complexity of medicine,” observed Gawande, who added that America trains its healthcare providers to be cowboys when it really needs pit crews – everyone working together to accomplish the same goal.

A primary barrier to that goal, he said, is cost.

“What we’re finding is the cost of healthcare is destroying our future and destroying the American dream,” he said.

While current events may seem dire, however, Gawande, Dillione, Kvedar and so many others were quick to point out that the future for healthcare could be positive. They urged conference attendees to embrace new forms of technology that improve the clinical workflow, foster transparency and accountability and make it easier for disparate healthcare entities – ranging from payers to physicians to patients – to work together.

That might include wireless devices that help people with chronic conditions stay in constant touch with their caregivers, sensors that can measure a pulse rate by light reflected off a person’s face, and three-dimensional programs that enable doctors to envision complex surgeries before making the first cut.

It might mean adopting the tenets of an ACO – or it might not, as was suggested in an entertaining debate between Jeff Goldsmith, president of Health Futures and an associate professor at the University of Virginia, and Timothy Ferris, MD, medical director of the Mass General Physicians’ Organization.

“ACOs have certainly seen their star rise and fall more dramatically than the 2011 Boston Red Sox,” said Lawrence Vernaglia, healthcare industry chair at the law firm of Foley & Lardner and the debate’s moderator.

Goldsmith argued that a healthcare system that places the hospital at the center of the care management and healthcare cost containment curve won’t work, and that health plans should be allowed to manage the market rather than adapting to a rigid ACO.

“The ACO is basically a scheme of incentives to try and get doctors and hospitals to work together,” he said.

Ferris disagreed, saying health plans aren’t in the business of taking care of patients. An ACO, he countered, would enable care providers to work together to determine the best avenue of care.

“There is a relationship between the people who are paying the bills and the people who are providing the care,” he added.