“Health care today is similar to the Internet in 1995 with respect to its digital and business model transformation,” says Zen Chu, senior lecturer in health care innovation at MIT Sloan School of Management and Harvard-MIT Health Sciences and Technology program. “Health care research and redesigned products are being transformed by new sources of data, new tools for analyzing that data, and new services for putting that data into action in real time.”
Chu has served as founding CEO of three health care companies and has helped to build many more in his role as venture investor for AccelMed Ventures. Chu is also the cofounder and lead faculty advisor of MIT’s Hacking Medicine Initiative, which has taught more than 10,000 health professionals, engineers, and entrepreneurs a process for tech-centric health care innovation, culminating each year in a “Grand Hack” on the top floor of the MIT Media Lab. In 2016, one of the Grand Hack’s three tracks was the data-focused “Connected Health” (sponsored by InterSystems, a pioneering company in the data/health space founded by Phillip T. Ragon ’72).
We asked Chu to explain how harnessing data can reinvent health care, and how MIT researchers and entrepreneurs are leading the way.
Digital health has been a hot category of global entrepreneurship, with more than $8 billion in venture funding invested in each of the past two years. What’s your view of digital health?
ZC: The digital transformation of health is one of the most significant shifts in the history of medicine. When people ask me to explain digital health, I say it’s not just the Silicon Valley model of “faster, better, cheaper.” It’s not enough to digitize everything. It’s about society’s broader goals of increasing access, convenience, better patient experiences, and trust. Redesigning fundamental health experiences can improve trust, behaviors, and patient satisfaction.
Many clinicians and public health professionals want to be a part of the solution in health care, but that doesn’t mean more care. Optimal health systems must focus limited resources on increasing access, increasing quality, and decreasing cost. The digital transformation of health care and tech-enabled services can simultaneously impact all three aims.
We hear a lot about big data being used in health care. Where is it applied?
ZC: Take Arsenal Health, also known as Smart Scheduling, which came out of Hacking Medicine and was acquired by athenahealth. One of the attendees said, “My wife is a doctor, and her days are governed by her schedule: Either everyone shows up, and she runs two hours late, or nobody does.Why can’t we have the Ozzy Osborne patient scheduled with the reliable grandmother so it averages out?” A team of MIT engineers said, “Hey, this is a supply chain optimization issue, and we know how to do that.” They mined a deidentified patient data set from athenahealth to pinpoint no-shows or habitual cancelers and optimized schedules based around these patterns; for instance, by doublebooking with a reliable patient to cause minimal disruption.
Can you give another example of a company maximizing new sources of real-world data?
ZC: Ginger.io is a great example, started by two MIT grad students [Anmol Madan SM ’05, PhD ’10 and Karan Singh MBA ’11] with no health care experience but with fresh insights from Sandy Pentland’s group at the Media Lab. They viewed the smartphone as a set of sensors and developed algorithms to predict house, etc. They partnered with over 40 health and hospital systems with over 500,000 patients and analyzed over 1 billion data points to prove that their systems predicted and could help identify who needed help earlier. Ginger.io has pioneered using the smartphone as a research tool and as a personalized patient sensor to reach, intervene, and directly help individual patients.
You co-teach a class called HST.978 Healthcare Ventures. What does it cover?
ZC: Our class serves as an action-learning lab to teach entrepreneurial techniques amid the complexities of health care innovation. It grew out of the Hacking Medicine process and allows us to take teams deeper during a full semester. We teach them how to be intentional about business models, choosing and using only the data that are predictive of a real effect in the it has to impact the real world. More than $100 million in venture funding has gone into startups that emerged from this course and Hacking Medicine.
How are MIT students and faculty equipped to creatively improve health care?
ZC: MIT has an amazing culture of engineering and applied sciences. If there’s any industry that needs more engineers, it’s health care. As Edward Roberts, our famous entrepreneurship professor, says: “Impact equals invention times commercialization.” At Hacking Medicine, we’ve emphasized that health professionals cannot shy away from addressing business models in the redesign of health care.
MIT and Boston are at the center of this transformation. MIT doesn’t have a medical school, but our focus on health and technology has an outsized impact on health care. There is no other place on Earth with this concentration of basic research, world-class clinical institutions, and company R&D centers from high tech, biotech, pharma, and med tech.
We believe that students outside of medical and life sciences can contribute to the noble mission of health care innovation. Many inventions and ventures will be founded by engineers with fresh eyes on the massive problems in health care. This is the best time in the history of medicine to be an innovator focused on human health.