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How New Tech From A.I. to Drones Is Improving Healthcare

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There’s enthusiasm about the healthcare industry—I badly want to call it infectious or contagious but fear that would be in poor taste—and it is abundantly evident at Fortune’s Brainstorm Health conference in San Diego this week.

Keller Rinaudo, founder and CEO of medical-supplies-delivery-by-drones company Zipline International, wowed the audience with images of the important work his for-profit company is doing in Africa. The exceedingly well-funded startup is more than a curio, and its technology vastly bests annoying quad-copters. Zipline’s drones are airplanes that land by an innovative tail hook mechanism.

Technology is transforming healthcare, mostly for the good. Hal Barron, chief scientific officer at drug giant GSK, described how his firm is using genetic targeting to double the likelihood that experimental drugs will reach patients—from 10% to 20%. Harvard epidemiologist Caroline Buckee described a project in Puerto Rico that used satellite imaging and mobile phone data to track disease outbreaks so they could be treated more efficiently.

There’s always a downside to this kind of enthusiasm. Health-industry leaders love talking about whiz-bang technology. Coming up with solutions to the chronic problem of the underserved, not so much. When the Cleveland Clinic’s (and now Google Cloud advisor) Toby Cosgrove asked Bruce Broussard, CEO of mega-insurer Humana, his perspective on “Medicare for All,” the insurance executive murmured vague praise for “the government” and proceeded to dance unsatisfyingly around an answer.

Another downer: Peter Sands, the former banker who runs the Global Fund for AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, observed that “the business community is not really engaged in global health in the way they are engaged in the environment.” His group studied the Fortune 500 and learned that 74% of the companies have policies on the environment while just 10% formally addressed global health. And many of those are healthcare companies. Sands theorizes that environmental activists have done a far better job of engaging with corporations and that the global health community itself is deeply mistrustful of business. “I think the global health community needs to take a long, hard look at how it engages,” he said.

To end on a happy note, the psychologist Lisa Damour explained why stress and anxiety get a bad rap and actually are good for us. (Hint: most things for which we are hard-wired tend to be at least a little beneficial.) The title of my summary of Damour’s talk is “Writing This Article Was Stressful. That’s Okay, Experts Say.”