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How Virtual Doctor Visits Could Rehumanize Health Care

Oct 10, 2016

It’s plain to anyone who has visited the doctor that medicine’s relationship with information technology is tenuous at best. Merely hoping to have a timely email exchange with a physician can be an exercise in futility.

My ears perked up, then, when Bernard Tyson, CEO of the 11 million-member Kaiser Foundation Health Plan and Hospitals, known as Kaiser Permanente, bragged last week that more than half of Kaiser’s interactions with its patients are virtual. Kaiser’s doctors use smartphones, kiosks, video conferencing and other tools to “see” patients when a physical visit isn’t necessary. Tyson says the traditional health care system is organized to “fix” patients. Because vertically integrated Kaiser makes money whether or not it treats its patients, its incentive is to keep customers healthy as much as to cure or mend them.

To a patient, the virtue of avoiding an office visit before refilling a routine prescription, for example, is obvious. Only an insane insurance system, which Kaiser sidesteps by owning its own hospitals, would think otherwise.

This frustrating conundrum is but a tiny example of the revolution happening because information technology finally is having a meaningful impact on health care and medicine. Controversy will follow. Over the weekend venture capitalist Vinod Khosla angrily swiped at competitor Marc Andreessen for misrepresenting Khosla’s perspective on the future role of doctors. Andreessen, interviewed on the impact artificial intelligence will have on medicine, said Khosla believes “doctors are going to go away.” Khosla promptly republished a lengthy treatise that suggests technology will enable doctors to refocus 80% of their time on the “human aspects” of practicing medicine.

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It is a near certainty that tremendous good will come from the likes of Andreessen and Khosla bickering with each other—with each investing according to their respective theses.

As it happens, Fortune has a contribution to make to the discussion. On the first two days of November, in San Diego, we are hosting the inaugural Brainstorm HEALTH conference. As my pal and conference guiding light Clifton Leaf has written: "We'll probe the potential of all this new medtech, challenge orthodoxy, poke a few sacred cows, and do a fair amount of big-sky dreaming about what's possible—and what ought to be.”

This conference is an exciting extension of our Brainstorm franchise, and like our other conferences, attendance at Brainstorm HEALTH is by invitation only. But if your world overlaps with the program—view the preliminary agenda here—we welcome your application.

Have a healthy week.

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