Along with 9000 or so of my closest friends, I went to the HLTH conference right before Thanksgiving week. As that conference came to a close, Canary Medical, the company I recently joined, had its own conference (about implantable sensors) and some subsequent meetings. The net result: I spent 6 whole days in Las Vegas and lived to tell about it. I wrote last time about how I was excited to see humans in 3D but terrified about the COVID risk. Never have I been so in touch with my own feelings.
Aside from getting to see tons of long-lost friends and meeting many of my new colleagues in person, which was awesome, I also won net $500 at the craps tables. To no one’s surprise, I immediately spent the money on a pair of Vegas-worthy sparkly shoes. That was the good news.
The less than good news was mainly about what I saw at the HLTH Conference. The event itself was well-produced and organized, as it always is. There were even an over-abundance of meeting areas that allowed the networking to be done in earnest; this is something often overlooked at big events. I admit I didn’t attend more than one of the panel presentations, so can’t really comment on that aspect of HLTH.
I did see an orgy of neon and tech bros – some of the glitz was way over the top for a healthcare conference and some of the attendees looked like they had escaped from an episode of Silicon Valley. But what really got me was that I saw virtually nothing new among the various company offerings. I was quite disappointed to see mostly the same products, same themes, same bad business models, and same high-fiving about venture financings that I saw the last time I went to HLTH, which was pre-COVID. At a time when the digital health field demands consolidation and business model rationalization, people were partying like it was 2021.
Actually, I did see one new thing: a whole host of new buzzwords. Gone were the terms “digital transformation” and “disruptive innovation,” thank goodness, relegated to the digital buzzword hall of fame (infamy?). The new, new buzzwords/buzzphrases I saw in abundance were these:
- Digital First! Yikes, should we not be moving to Patient First!?
- Purpose Built! As opposed to what? Built for no purpose?
- Health at Scale! Uh, ok, but shouldn’t we be moving to personalized health?
- New Future! My personal favorite in that it says nothing at all. And by the way, how does this differ from the old future we haven’t seen yet? Should we be in the Sports Book placing bets on which is the better future?
- The Next Vital Sign! Which is actually, as far as I can tell, Series B financing dollars in the bank.
- Data Ingestion Engine! Which, all too often, is a data spewing engine with little discernible outcome improvement.
- And my least favorite…Meet People Where They Are! This phrase is not really new, but it was markedly more annoying when rendered in giant letters at the Venetian Resort, where regular the people in need are definitely not likely to be met.
Another new-ish thing was the plethora of giant companies that are now taking major booth space and now referring to themselves digital health companies. Salesforce, Verizon, Samsung, Deloitte, and Bayer all had booths. Fascinating. I know each of these companies does have some digital health activities, but it was interesting to see them declare it so assertively considering the likely contribution of this field to their bottom line. But perhaps the presence of the large players is a sign of the actual state of the digital health field – it has arrived. Whether that arrival equates to better outcomes is where I found the disconnect.
A friend of mine commented that they did not enjoy the multi-media neon Optum birth canal that one had to traverse to enter the exhibit hall. People were literally bumping into each other as they walked through it because they were so distracted by the lights and videos on the walls and ceiling. It reminded me of that ceiling light show in the United Airlines (different United :)) terminal at O’Hare Airport where they needed to add a recording that reminded people to pay attention to the floor so they didn’t fall off the moving walkway. Hilarious. There should have been a digital bruise management company right inside the exhibit hall door – they would have had a ton of business.
There were also 39 companies in attendance that have names that start with a number. That was kind of a funny trend to notice. Remember when every company in the digital realm started with “e” or “i”? Now they start with numbers and look like something Elon Musk would name one of his zillions of kids.
Much of the hallway talk at the conference was about what was going to happen in the venture capital realm. Or to be more accurate, it was about how worried entrepreneurs were about raising money in the next 18 months and how worried investors are about supporting their existing portfolio companies. Venture funds with lots of new money were, as predicted, talking about how there were going to be able to buy low and sell high, but wanted only to see companies that had proven their value proposition and had a lot of evidence, both clinical and economic. Gotta love how much of the venture world flees from risk-taking when the going gets tough, but it is a natural response if you can get much more developed companies for the price of what you could get 12 months ago for two guys, an iPad and a borrowed desk in an accelerator.
Companies already flush with cash were strutting around like Kim Kardashian on her own TV show. And good for them, but yikes. I hope these companies remember to save some for a rainy day, as it may be raining for a long time. Don’t spend it all on new branding and a giant salesforce when you haven’t figured out yet WHY people even want what you have to peddle. Health systems at the conference, with rare exception, were talking about how their sales cycle is getting longer, not shorter. So, in other words, if you are a well-funded company right now, you may not close a health system deal until there are whole new set of buzzwords in vogue.
This is definitely the time to hunker down, tighten hiring, restrict spending and to measure what delivers value. If you are an entrepreneur, this applies both to your product and to your purchases.
To end on a positive, I was delighted to see the expansive attention on the CSweetener women’s mentoring platform at HLTH. The HLTH Foundation acquired CSweetener from me several years ago and it is so gratifying to see it not just alive but thriving. Several people mentioned to me that they are still serving as mentors in the program (as am I) and that is pretty awesome. The HLTH team has done a wonderful job with CSweetener.