As everyone in healthcare knows, and also every single San Francisco-based Lyft and Uber driver, the JP Morgan Healthcare Conference (“JPM”) was held last week. “JPM” has become a shorthand for the ritual amassing of healthcare life forms in San Francisco that occurs right when your New Year’s Eve hangover is wearing off. It is basically the world’s largest speed dating event, interrupted by some actual conferences, like the one JP Morgan itself puts on. There are also a variety of other side conferences, programs, activities and soirees throughout town. If it is raining in San Francisco, you know it’s JPM week.
Many others have written about the various big healthcare announcements of last week, but I’m going to talk about the diversity vibe. JPM was different than in past years in a few notable ways. I’ve been going to the JPM spectacle since before it was really a spectacle – probably about 15-20 years. I missed the first 17 or so years of the conference because it was almost entirely biotech-focused, which was basically not my table. But now it’s highly diverse, in healthcare terms anyway. Health IT, healthcare services, medical technology and biotech are all there in all their glory. While biotech has been flying high this past year, all of the other categories have been wildly active as well. There may not have been any digital health IPOs in 2018, but there was certainly a lot of money sloshing around. And medtech has made signs of some recovery, which is interesting and good.
When one puts “diversity” in the same sentence as the JP Morgan Healthcare Conference, rarely does the discussion stray from the gender question. But actually, the vibe around this is also changing and it was palpable. There were fewer Michaels presenting than last year at the actual JP Morgan event, which is still overwhelmingly male. FYI, Lisa was the most popular name in my year of birth, so get on it people! But while the main event of JPM was still pretty testosterony, at the many satellite events, I feel like the tables have turned, or at least are starting to change for the better.
I, personally, participated in 3 different panels during JPM week (at the Digital Orthopedics conference, at the Digital Medicines Conference, and at a private event put on by 120/80) and and every single one of them actually had more women on them than men. While I am quite clear that work remains on this topic, it was clear to me that awareness of the “manel” syndrome was far more widespread than in past years. There were no strippers at parties (at least the ones I heard about) and that is saying something. Clearly the problem is not solved. But awareness is way up and the willingness to talk about it is palpable. It is progress. JP Morgan and the others who host events can do better and for the first time, it seems like the pressure is on to get them to actually deliver. We shall see what next year brings.
The other new category of “diversity” at JPM is a much increased focused on what I will call the “soft side” of healthcare. I actually don’t think these things are soft at all, but increasingly there is a rising discussion about the importance of mental health, substance abuse services, transportation and housing, nutrition, and other categories that many sweep into the bucket of “social determinants of health.” JPM has always been a place where scientists go to drink, but now the social scientists have bellied up to the bar and thank goodness for that.
Mental health was, in particular, the talk of the week. I met with someone starting a venture capital fund focused on mental health, at least 4 people I had not yet known starting companies focused on mental health, and numerous payer and provider organizations that have made mental healthcare a priority for 2019. Some of you know that I used to work in the mental health field at a company originally called American Biodyne, but I left there in 1998. I heard more about the need for advancement and innovation in mental health in this one week than I have heard in the 20 years since leaving Biodyne. Seriously. I thought the topic particularly poignant given the obvious need for mental health care present among the denizens of San Francisco’s Union Square. California’s streets are rife with people in desperate need of these services and I sincerely hope that some of the entrepreneurs and financiers interested in mental health turn their attention to the more complex needs of patients with serious mental illness. It would be nice if we showed up at JPM next year and progress had been made, or at least threatened.
On a related topic, healthcare services are back, baby. Everywhere I turned people were asking me if services were becoming increasingly important in the age of technology. And my response to that is, NO. Services were always important, you just forgot or refused to pay attention. David Shaywitz and I wrote about this two years ago and it is more true than ever: without getting the service side right, healthcare technology is pretty useless.
One growing area of particular interest in healthcare services is primary and urgent care, a sub-sector that has been taking on capital like the desert takes on sand. Notably absent from the venture/entrepreneurial discussion for ¾ of my venture career, we have seen a huge change in interest in this area over the past five or so. Primary care has become such an important topic that nearly every major public healthcare services, insurance, health system and consumer health company is paying rapt attention. At the event that I collaborated on with 120/80’s team, we had standing room only and trouble choosing which of the many companies in this sector we should invite to be on the panel. We settled on CVS/Aetna (Minute Clinic), One Medical, CareDox and CityBlock. We could easily have also had a plethora of others, including Optum, Humana, WalMart, Walgreens, ChenMed, Iora…the list goes on and on. If you want to see the replay of this panel, go here.
Another new category of JPM diversity is the very obvious presence of big tech companies who have become, or are working to become, serious players in the healthcare sector. Joining those with an original healthcare pedigree, newcomers like Amazon, Google, Apple, Lyft, Uber and a plethora of others showed up in new ways. I made this comment to reporter Rebecca Robbins of STAT News: “These companies have been present for several years but this may be the first year they are being taken so seriously,” Suennen said. “Amazon, especially, has struck fear in the hearts of many and inspiration in the hearts of others when in prior years they were more of a novelty presence.” Considering that JP Morgan’s CEO, Jamie Dimon, had a private dinner with pharma executives where Amazon’s strategy was a major topic, it seems that dismissing these large tech companies is no longer a viable strategy; and FYI I didn’t know about that dinner when I made my own comment.
So JPM is becoming more diverse in many ways. More women, more types of companies, more types of sectors, more types of services and the top topic of this year’s event, more expensive hotels. With the exception of the last one in the list, more is definitely better, and it will be interesting to see what next year brings. At a minimum, I’m hoping to see that there are more Lisa’s than Michaels, and that despite our currently crazy stock market, my predictions about the digital health bubble bursting continue to be wrong. One can dream, right?