Cisco CEO John Chambers: American Health Care Is At A Tipping Point
September 18, 2014
As CEO, John Chambers has helped Cisco grow from $70 million in revenue to upward of $47 billion. He’s a talented leader who’s used to delivering exceptional results.
On the day we met, Chambers said he had made three urgent phone calls in the past 24 hours.
But these weren’t typical CEO business calls. For Chambers, these calls were personal.
He was on the phone trying to find the best medical care for his employees and their family members. When serious illness strikes at Cisco, Chambers is quick to intervene.
“I follow every illness of every employee, their spouses or partners or children,” Chambers said. “As CEOs, each of us has our culture. For us at Cisco, family is a huge part of it.”
Family is a huge part of Cisco because it’s a huge part of John Chambers. And when you understand who his parents were, you begin to understand why the chief executive of the world’s leading IT company spends time helping employees with their health issues.
“My dad delivered 6,000 babies and he was an unbelievably good business man,” he said. “Mom was trained in internal medicine and psychiatry and had the emotional skills to understand and treat the whole patient.”
His parents instilled in him a passion for business, a commitment to education and a focus on the health of the total community.
And, of course, he learned a lot about the world of health care.
English: John T. Chambers, Chairman and Chief …
John Chambers, Chairman and CEO of Cisco (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
“The health care system is the only major industry that has had negative productivity for decades,” Chambers said. “And while the industry uses segments of technology, it tends to be more in silos as opposed to working across the whole system to improve the overall health outcomes for patients.”
From his perspective, the American medical system is like the world of computers before routers, switches and networks: disconnected, inefficient.
He envisions a world that’s connected by what he calls the “Internet of Everything.” According to Chambers, it’s about “bringing together people, process, data and things to make networked connections more relevant and valuable than ever before.”
Of course, there’s a place in his vision for health care. And listening to him, it is easy to see the advantages that come from integrating all the parts.
Chambers understands the impact it would have. We’re just not there yet.
“I think the American health care system is at a tipping point,” he said. “Hopefully, a positive one. We can learn much from both the mistakes and successes of other countries around the world.”
Chambers worries that unless Europe and the U.S. evolve their health care systems, the cost of medical care will bankrupt their economies.
And with connectivity as the key, Chambers’ vision is to equip health care providers with better technologies and processes for care delivery. He’s certain doing so will improve quality, lower costs and link patients and providers virtually.
“The first thing that will happen is all devices on our bodies, in hospitals and in our homes will be connected,” he said. “The second technological advance is video, which is the way people will prefer to communicate in the future. Video can connect any health care professional to any patient and to any specialist, all at tremendous speeds. You’ll be able to receive medical expertise 24/7. Health care applications will combine the technologies of cloud and big data, whether in the hospital or in your home. Video allows a different level of collaboration, and it offers security and privacy from your home. This is the Internet of Everything.”
As both a physician and health care CEO, I agree with Chambers that broad connectivity will be a major advance and will be central to how we provide health care in the future.
But both of us understand the obstacles that stand in the way right now.
For example, a doctor wanting to provide patients across the country with medical advice or consultations by video would need to obtain a medical license in each of the 50 states.
And most care providers still can’t share medical information digitally. Despite decades of trial and error, hospital systems and physicians still don’t share a common electronic medical record (EMR) in most communities. In fact, much of America’s medical information sits in filing cabinets.
Meanwhile health information exchanges (HIEs) – designed to allow doctors, nurses and pharmacists to securely access and share vital patient information electronically – aren’t the norm and have had limited impact on improving the problem.
“In a typical hospital, there are nine to 15 different applications that were never designed to share information with each other,” he said. “And without a common medical record that has the appropriate security and privacy built into it, moving data from one application to another is difficult.”
Chambers believes that changing the process begins with addressing the culture. And changing the culture of medicine begins with physicians.
“The most difficult people to change are the ones who have been most successful,” he said. “There has to be competition that forces people to think and act in new ways. And they won’t unless they see and understand the benefit of change for themselves and their patients.”
But we know that the door to better health care doesn’t hinge on doctors alone. The worlds of business and politics must contribute to the change process.
Chambers said that all of the people and parts must collaborate with each other if we’re to improve medicine in America.
“Most CEOs will lead only when they think the country is ready to change,” he said. “And there must be a political willingness to move forward. Change will require both political parties to work together toward a common goal. It will require a willingness to take risks. It will take a populace that demands their elected officials work together to find solutions. Change will require the citizenry, political leadership and business leaders to work together on improving the American health care system.”
Looking back on our interview, what struck me most about Chambers is his ability to see beyond the problems of today. He almost invariably looks ahead to the solutions of tomorrow.
An electronically connected health care world could provide new insights into medical problems. It could help us identify superior approaches to health care. It could increase quality, allowing more convenient access to care while reducing the chances of medical error.
Chambers recognizes the challenges. He knows change will be difficult. But he’ll continue to focus on the desired outcome.
“I always go to the end game, then work back from there,” he said when I asked him what the future of health care looks like. “The end game should be connecting any patient to the best health care professionals in the world at any time, using video-driven, low-cost technology.”
Chambers believes the ability to provide care to any patient, anywhere, at any time is less than a decade away. And by then, doctors will be able to use big data to analyze tens of thousands of patient cases at once to improve their diagnostic and therapeutic skills.
In health care today, we have more information than we know how to use.
But the era of consumerism in health care is coming. How information is made available will change. In the future, patients, not providers, will drive health care decisions, including whether the care they receive is in-person or virtual.
The health care system will experience bumps along the road getting from here to there. And we should all expect the unexpected twists and turns that will come.
But if Chambers is right – and he’s confident he is – the destination will be worth it.
I concluded our interview by asking him what future topic he’d like me to cover in my Forbes blog.
“How will the health care enterprise move from operating in silos to working together, seamlessly?” he asked. “How will that help patients achieve the health outcomes that are possible and important to them?”
I will explore these critical questions in an upcoming post.
Dr. Robert Pearl is the CEO of The Permanente Medical Group, a certified plastic and reconstructive surgeon, and Stanford University professor. Follow him on Twitter: @RobertPearlMD.