Commentary: How Silicon Valley Can Help Fix Our Health Care System

Inside The New Apple Inc. Michigan Avenue Store
An employee assists a customer with an Apple Watch during the opening of the new Apple Inc. Michigan Avenue store in Chicago, Illinois, U.S., on Friday, Oct. 20, 2017. The building features exterior walls made entirely of glass with four interior columns supporting a 111-by-98 foot carbon-fiber roof, designed to minimize the boundary between the city and the Chicago River. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Daniel Acker—Bloomberg via Getty Images

As frustrated as most Americans are with the health care system, research also shows they’re overwhelmingly positive about the professionals working within it. On Monday, I joined health care leaders from around the country at Fortune Brainstorm Health to look at both sides: the great work being done across the country in health care today, and ways we can address the challenges associated with improving the health care system.

At an event that brought so many people together, it seems fitting that a popular topic was collaboration between tech companies and the health care sector. During my tenure as the dean of Stanford’s School of Medicine, and over my decades as a practicing surgeon and scientist, I’ve seen plenty of companies enter the health care sector and fall short of their aspirations, not making the sort of difference they had originally sought. Some might say tech companies should leave it to the health care professionals. After all, it’s difficult enough to disrupt health care from the inside, so what chance would an outsider have?

But health care stands to benefit tremendously from the fresh thinking, cutting-edge technology, and resources that Silicon Valley can bring. Hence why partnerships are such a powerful solution, and why it’s so encouraging to see collaborations between tech companies and academic medical centers. One such partnership is exploring how AI can help us better understand how people can live healthier as they age. Another is studying if machine learning can predict whether a patient is at risk for cardiac arrest. At Stanford Medicine, we’re working with Google (GOOG) in an effort to map human health, and with Apple (AAPL) to explore if the Apple Watch can help identify irregular heart rhythms.

As tech companies are partnering with academic medical centers, entrepreneurs leading these companies are also stepping up as individuals to help foster more collaboration across academic institutions. The Chan Zuckerberg Biohub, for instance, was established in late 2016 to “cure, prevent or manage all diseases.” It brings together researchers from Stanford, UC Berkeley, and UCSF and focuses on fundamental research—the kind of study that pursues ideas often without a direct application in mind. Because it can be hard to know where this type of research will lead in terms of practical applications, the research is often underfunded. Yet it’s vitally important. Fundamental research is credited with resulting in a range of groundbreaking discoveries, from GPS technology to germ theory. Like the Chan Zuckerberg Biohub, the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy has an ambitious goal: curing cancer. And also like the Biohub, the Parker Institute has made partnerships the cornerstone of its research strategy, partnering with more than 60 labs from a range of institutions.

These partnerships take work to get off the ground. Corporate and academic timetables don’t always match, and aligning an academic culture with a corporate one takes effort. In pursuit of such important goals, overcoming these hurdles seems unquestionably worthwhile.


These cross-sector collaborations also create something less tangible and potentially more powerful: a fertile environment for breakthrough ideas. Research shows that great ideas emanate from collaborative endeavors more than from work done in isolation. In Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson highlighted a study that looked at researchers from four separate molecular biology labs. “Those isolated ‘eureka moments’ were rarities,” Johnson wrote. “Instead, most important ideas emerged during regular lab meetings … the ground zero of innovation was not the microscope. It was the conference table.”

The challenges facing the U.S. health care system are large, complex, and resistant to simplistic solutions. I don’t pretend that collaboration alone will address them all. But progress on any meaningful scale is going to come from new ideas and interventions—and what better way to spark them than by bringing the brightest minds from biomedical science and Silicon Valley to the same table?

Lloyd B. Minor is the dean of the Stanford University School of Medicine.

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