February 13, 2019
4 min read

5 major themes from the annual J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference

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Sameer Berry
Sameer Berry

The annual J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference was held January 7-10, 2019 in San Francisco. Each year, the health care investment symposium brings thousands of investors together with industry leaders, emerging companies and innovative technology creators.

The conference hosts over 9,000 attendees, with representation from over 450 public and private businesses. Sameer Berry, MD, internist at Cedars-Sinai, and Rishi Patel, MD, internist with Heal Healthcare, share some of the major themes they encountered this year.

Clinical trials

Numerous sessions revolved around inefficiencies in clinical trials and how we can innovate to facilitate research and drug development without placing an undue burden on patients to participate in these trials. Multiple ideas were discussed to shorten clinical trials, improve patient selection and get the right pharmaceuticals to patients faster. A striking analysis was done on a particular trial where sick patients, sometimes near the end of life, were required to travel to their provider 33 times for simple visits (blood draws, vital signs, quick check-ups). Through telehealth and home-health this company was able to reduce these visits by 50%. Essentially, this “clinical trial on wheels” brings drug development to the patient. Using technology to stay patient-centered and keep the patient experience at the forefront of what we do both as clinicians and as researchers is crucial and we are glad to see that this was a focus of the conference.

There were also several presentations about how some companies are using today’s favorite buzzwords like machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) to accelerate the identification of new drug targets and simulate novel protein structures that would otherwise require significant trial and error.

Decreasing health disparities

Health disparities was a personal favorite theme because J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference has a reputation for being very profit-driven (it is put on by a massive bank). Some very prominent individuals spoke at length about how they measure and address the impact of social determinants of health on their patients. One’s environment can impact health much more than medical care. Bernard Tyson, CEO of Kaiser Permanente, admitted that though the effects of homelessness and food insecurity on one’s health are unequivocal, these are complex problems despite numerous institutions attempting to find a solution. Kaiser is investing $200 million dollars on developing affordable housing and addressing the problem of homelessness in the communities they serve.

He remained politically agnostic when asked about air quality and climate change after California’s wildfires: “We are absolutely working on climate change. We have no political agenda, we don't waste time debating whether climate change is happening or not. There is an intersection of climate change and health care which is what we are working on.”

Another physician spoke about her medical practice, which is in the northern part of Chicago. Only eight miles south, the life expectancy drops by 16 years. This is clearly the result of social and economic differences between the Northern and Southern side of Chicago; and many startups were focused on tightening this gap. Even investors at large funds spoke about the way they evaluate the success of their investments. In addition to measuring financial return, one large fund judges success by the impact the company had on patients and the care experience, which is done by an independent evaluation of each investment.


Digital therapeutics

Any meeting held in the valley will have an emphasis on all things digital, and J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference was no exception. Digital therapeutics are defined as any hardware or software product that produces a demonstrable clinical benefit. The major problem facing these digital therapeutics is how they will fit into the traditional pharmaceutical landscape. Digital health startups are increasingly partnering with big pharma because they understand the regulatory pathways to get a new intervention into the hands of patients quickly. This synergistic relationship is ideal and will hopefully lead to value improvement instead of the zero-sum competition that has hindered the health care industry for so long.

Democratizing health care technology

Along the lines of health disparities, many presentations spoke about the need to shift the focus of our startups, new technologies, and innovative ideas beyond the well-insured PPO patient, to also address the needs of Medicaid patient populations. Where arguably the ability to make a positive impact on a patient’s health is much greater. Sandra Hernandez, CEO of the California Healthcare Foundation, gave a very interesting talk about how smaller community hospitals have higher acquisition costs for physicians. Given that these hospitals are frequently in less desirable areas and treat complex patients, they spend more money to recruit high-quality providers in forms of higher signing bonuses and brokers, placing more strain on systems that are already underfunded. As a community, her call to action was to direct the focus of innovation toward these patients and health care systems that need it most.

Health care in emerging markets

Another interesting theme we saw is an accelerating focus on health care in emerging markets, specifically in India and China. Both are blessed with a rising GDP and are poised to allot more of that pie toward health care. For example, Prime Minister Modi recently rolled out ‘Modicare’ — government funded insurance aimed at protecting 500 million of the poorest citizens in India. This has sparked the interest of NGOs and large health care organizations alike. One of the largest hospital chains in India, Apollo Hospitals, is leveraging the rising GDP and better access to technology to roll out a sophisticated remote monitoring system to use data for improving outcomes in diabetes. Overall, we’re seeing the international health care landscape change quickly and becoming a playground for innovation.

Disclosures: Berry and Patel report no relevant financial disclosures.