Skip to Content

Kaiser Permanente CEO: ‘Health Care Isn’t Affordable. Period.’

Measure twice, cut once—the age-old adage may be intended for carpentry, but it’s just as relevant in the business of health care. (And not just in surgery.)

Is there a better way to care for patients? On Tuesday at Fortune’s fourth Brainstorm Health conference in San Diego, Kaiser Permanente CEO Bernard Tyson argued that there is—and urged his peers to move away from “episodic” treatment and toward a more holistic approach.

“How do we quantify health over the life of a person?” Tyson asked, adding that optimizing for “healthy life-years” of individuals forces a rethink of the entire health ecosystem. “We should think broader than being in just the medical care lane.”

It is inarguable that behaviors beyond direct care impact a person’s health—where you live, how you sleep, whether your environment supports healthy lifestyles and behaviors. Yet most quality measurement in the care industry “has been based on process measurements,” said Tyson, whose company counts 12.4 million customers and annual operating revenue of more than $70 billion.

A change in mindset quickly leads to new approaches, Tyson said—such as setting up a virtual visit with a physician (say, with a dermatologist to evaluate a skin issue, based on a photo) rather than a physical one.

But there’s a lesson in making sure “that the tech hasn’t taken over the touch,” Tyson said, after addressing criticism following reports that his company used telemedicine to deliver a terminal diagnosis to a patient. (“We would never do anything like that,” he said, challenging the reports’ accuracy.)

A change in metrics could even help one of the biggest issues in health: cost. A rethinking of the cost structure of the industry to better serve patients could very well “arrest the escalation” of cost of care each year, Tyson said.

But there will be bumps along the way. Kaiser Permanente, for example, is investing a lot in technology to create new access points, Tyson said. But more convenience has created more usage. “We’re still working through that,” he said. And then there’s the transition from lifetime cost versus episodic cost to consider.

No matter. “One of the things we should all hear is the cry that health care isn’t affordable,” Tyson said. “Period.”

For more coverage of Fortune’s Brainstorm Health conference, click here. For news delivered daily to your inbox, subscribe to Fortune’s Brainstorm Health Daily newsletter.