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MIA in the Medical Revolution: A Sense of Urgency

Jan 10, 2017

This essay appears in today’s edition of the Fortune Brainstorm Health Daily. Get it delivered straight to your inbox.

There was a moment yesterday when Vice President Joe Biden’s words got caught in his throat.

He was addressing an intimate crowd at the StartUp Health Café in San Francisco about the White House Cancer Moonshot—the widely praised initiative he had begun leading just a year ago and that, only days from now, was slated to lose its potent “White House” prefix—when he began talking about his eldest son.

Beau Biden had been the state of Delaware’s attorney general and a decorated veteran who had served in Iraq. In 2013, a few years after returning from the war, the forty-four year old was diagnosed with Stage 4 glioblastoma, a diagnosis that the vice president said his entire family “knew was the equivalent of a death sentence.” So Joe, the Dad, set out to learn everything he could about the disease during his son’s year-and-a-half fight to survive. “The most important thing I learned,” he recounted, “was that we’ve reached—you all have reached in science—an inflection point in cancer….I found myself realizing that maybe, although we couldn’t save our son, that maybe we could…"

That’s when the words disappeared for a long moment and a father’s grief took over.

In a day in which investors and entrepreneurs young and old shared business cards and elevator pitches, in which the notion of healthcare as deal-making and commerce reigned supreme, Biden’s seconds-long flash of wordlessness was a rare moment of clarity.

We don’t just need innovation. Or investment. Or a clever new strategy. We need a change in the circadian rhythm of medical science: We need speed.

“My absolute conviction is that we have to inject an overwhelming sense of urgency into this fight,” Biden told the shoulder-to-shoulder gathering on Monday afternoon.

“We can save millions of lives by progressing faster.”

These, in my view, ought to be the guiding words of the healthcare revolution.

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