Welcome to the February/March issue of WonderWell, a newsletter intended to gather the most groundbreaking research and insightful commentaries in evidence-based medicine, wellness, healthcare leadership, writing, and innovation to help you live and work in alignment with your purpose and well-being.
Before we get into the topic for this month, I wanted to share that I had a great response to an article I wrote for the Globe and Mail (Saturday edition) about the pitfalls of the ‘self-improvement’ industry, and had a chance to discuss it on the All Sorts Podcast with the very gracious Desiree Nielsen, RD (whose books you should read, and she has a brand new one as well). It was a wide-ranging interview/discussion, and Desiree’s questions were incredible. Hope you enjoy it. I also realized how much I use the filler words “you know” — will work on that! Consider it a fair warning!
But how do we define it? Atul Gawande penned an excellent article in the New Yorker several years ago which hits the main points in a very compelling way. Further, several years ago, the American Board of Internal Medicine (ABIM) Foundation launched the “Choosing Wisely” initiative in part to support value-based care and reduce wasteful procedures/treatments (including that which has little to no evidence of effect).
Value as it relates to ‘value based care’ (VBC) is defined as “the measured improvement in a person’s health outcomes for the cost of achieving that improvement.” It’s crucial to note that while reducing costs/waste is related to VBC, it can’t be equated to VBC — they aren’t the same thing.
This brings us to a more philosophical argument: what does “value” mean generally, and how does this concept apply to both our health, and the systems that support it (the obvious ‘healthcare system,’ but also the places we work and play and live)?
First we can ponder what value means to ‘health.’ We can probably agree that our ‘health’ is inherently valuable, as it’s derivative: without it we’re limited in actualizing our other needs. As such, we place high value on our health, and are willing to invest in it, though oftentimes it falls by the wayside. Our health is valuable as it links to surviving but also thriving — without our health, our quality of life suffers (the ‘how’ we live), and at the most extreme, we cease to live (ie we die).
But what about value in healthCARE, i.e. the delivery of services for the purposes of optimizing health/well-being and offsetting/treating morbidities? How might we define that? I think we can conceptualize it in a few different ways.
For one: we can use the Costco example (for my international readers: Costco is described here). Most people would agree that Costco is a place where people seek value for household goods (food, appliances, etc). Why? Because per unit its on average cheaper: the consumer pays less per unit, so Costco remains in business primarily due to this perception of delivering ‘value’ by selling products that themselves deliver ‘value.’ Bulk stores are similar: what we save on packaging ends up in our pocket. A good example is shampoo: 20% more for the same price. That’s value.
Effectively, getting MORE for less money, even if we shell out a bit more money at the outset is ‘value.’ It feels like we got a deal. But it’s more than just monetary. Part of assessing value involves something intrinsic and somewhat intangible. It involves a ‘feeling’ of receiving more than we bargained for (in a good way, to be sure). Think about the last time you went to a cash register and realized a purchase was on sale. Or if your local barista threw in an item (I see you: extra shot of espresso!) for free. Or when searching for a hotel or airline ticket you realize you’ve stumbled upon a deal that’s too good to pass up. That feeling is akin to value. We feel ‘good.’
Can this idea apply to healthcare?
Currently, according to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), the US spends just over $12,000 on healthcare per person, per year. COVID has brought this into full focus: spending increased by close to 10% in 2020. The US healthcare system is also one of the least cost-effective systems in the world (meaning more money spent with worse outcomes), especially compared with countries like Canada (where I’ve spent most of my life) and where I was born (United Kingdom). But why? Well a large fraction of spending goes to hospitals (31%) and doctors/primary care clinics (20%), and, as Gawande writes in his New Yorker piece, it’s very likely secondary to how physicians (and insurers, and hospital administrators) are incentivized. Wasteful procedures (and spending) become a byproduct of a mismatch between incentives and value.
Allow me to me share a few stories to illustrate this point.
First, up: as a patient. In June 2020, a few months into the pandemic, I broke my left wrist — a classic FOOSH in my NYC apartment. I was lucky in that it involved my non-dominant hand/wrist. I was also lucky to have a friend who is an ER Doc in the city (hi Dan!) and whom I could call right away as I laid there watching the soft tissues of my wrist swell up (ouch!). Dan kindly organized for me to see his colleague at the emergency department (ED) at a big teaching hospital a few blocks away for an Xray and splint. That was done quickly, and Dan’s colleague kindly allowed me to take a photo of my scans. The orthopedic surgeon resident advised that I’d likely just need a cast, based on the scans alone. Then I was referred, as per protocol in the ED, for a one-week followup with a staff orthopedic surgeon. So, a week later, I dutifully went. The surgeon knew I had a medical background and am a physician myself. What he didn’t know was that I has sent the X-ray images to Dan, my brother (An ER doc in Canada) and a few other friends in ED and Ortho (in Canada and the US) — every single one said, based on the X-ray and my verbal history of what happened, that the bone alignment was good and a cast alone would suffice.
But what did the surgeon in clinic advise? Surgery. He explained that I would run the risk of arthritis if I didn’t take this option, as an an active woman in her thirties, this may not be ideal.
What’s the cost difference between a cast for a wrist FOOSH and surgery. ENORMOUS. The ED visit and split, as well as the followup clinic visit amounted to $3,600 USD. Surgery on top would have been at least $10,000 (and that’s being conservative).
And surgery includes risks (of anesthesia, post-surgical infection of the soft tissue/bone, etc).
I was able to explain to the surgeon that I was returning to Canada within days and would prefer to have surgery there if needed. He resigned himself to an ‘ok.’
Back in Canada I was seen quickly and casted, had a great physiotherapist and was about 75% in terms of range of motion and weigh-bearing within 8 weeks, and 100% within 7 months (that last 25% was tricky).
What’s the lesson here? This was a glaring example of the differences in approach between Canada — which has a universal healthcare system and a different setup of ‘incentives,’ and the US. Not assuming ill intent, but was this surgeon aware that surgery would not in fact be better, especially considering the balance of risks and benefits, not to mention costs? Did he know that the risk of arthritis, according to the evidence, is equivocal between a cast and surgery? It’s unclear. But this was an experienced surgeon, so perhaps the incentive to recommend a relatively easy surgical procedure with a high payoff (to him and the hospital system) played a large role.
Now imagine doctors like him making similar recommendations — that is, ones that could be influenced by financial gain, not clinical evidence — to millions of Americans each year, Americans who do not have the privilege of having a medical background or someone they could turn to for an informal opinion before deciding.
This is how the US spends more on healthcare than most other industrialized nations.
Second story: as a doctor. A few years ago as a resident physician in the children’s hospital, I realized that the team was ordering daily ‘lytes’ (short for ‘electrolytes’) for every patient admitted on IV fluids. Allow me a brief digression: our bodies very tightly regulate sodium (Na) and potassium (K), among other things (bicarbonate/HCO3 and chloride/Cl for instance). Intravenous (IV) fluids are a mainstay of supportive care for many patients admitted to the hospital, as hydration is often an issue in we’re sick, due to fluid shifts, insensible losses, etc. IV fluids themselves, as they contain electrolytes, can also lead to ‘too much’ or ‘too little’ electrolytes (specifically K or Na) which can lead to all kinds of issues for the brain and the heart. For an illness like diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA), assessing electrolytes closely and comprehensively is very important for many reasons (more here, note that DKA is managed differently in children vs adults, but the general principle of close electrolyte monitoring remains the same).
But for other illnesses, namely ones that don’t involve massive shifts in electrolytes, and where the main concern is whether the patient could become hypernatremic (high Na) on an NaCl IV fluid, ordering a whole set of ‘lytes’ isn’t usually necessary: checking Na alone should suffice, and potentially, with good kidney function, checking every second day may also be reasonable. So why did the team order daily lytes on everyone on IV fluids? Again: it seemed to be an action that was incentivized, but not due to financial gain per se — it was likely an action incentivized secondary to ‘habit’ (i.e. ‘this is just what we do.’).
Why does this matter? Habits or shortcuts or heuristics save us from additional cognitive load. When we drive a car, we automatically know we need to stop at a red light, and go at the greenlight. We don’t stop to ask ourselves consciously whether we should stop or go (yellow lights on the other hand…). Stopping to think ‘does this patient need this action? Will ordering X change the course of management?’ are important questions, but they take time and effort. It’s often easier, especially in a busy hospital ward, to go into automatic mode and simply order more than what’s actually needed. The idea being: it’s better to be more comprehensive than not.
Except: that assumption is often wrong for patients who are clinically improving.
With this particular example of ‘daily lytes’, out of curiosity, I wondered about two things:
1. What was difference is in terms of volume of blood taken for a patient if we ordered ‘all lytes’ compared with just the one we needed (Na) in this case?
2. What was the cost difference between the two?
So, after a hasty lunch one day, I headed down to the lab second floor and asked a technician, who provided me with a list of costs. I also spoke with a phlebotomist to understand the blood volume issue.
Here’s what I found: blood volume wise, the difference was small, but there was still a difference — a few milliliters per tube of blood taken. Iatrogenic (hospital caused) anemia remains an issue in acute care medicine, secondary to taking too much blood from a patient. For a patient in hospital for a week, a few milliliters a day can be significant enough to cause symptoms (fatigue for instance, on top of what may be normal secondary to an illness).
Cost-wise, the difference was about $5. I can’t recall the exact figures, but each electrolyte was roughly $1 dollar (for ease of explanation I’ll assume equivalence between the Canadian and US dollar). A full lytes panel of 6 electrolytes costs $6. What does this mean? Let’s assume that each patient admitted to hospital requires a full lytes panel on admission, but then those that receive IV fluids only need their Na checked each day after. If the average stay is about 4 additional days on the inpatient unit, we’re dealing with a difference per patient of $5 a day — so $20 in total (with the total cost being $26 if we add that day 1 panel cost). Now imagine there are 500 patients admitted per month into the unit who require IV fluids. Thats 500 x $20 (=$10,000) compared with 500 x $4 (=$2000). Now multiply that by 12 to get the yearly figures, and then by the number of acute care wards in the country and….well you get the point. The financial difference that results from being more prudent with test-ordering is immense. The consequences of not stopping to think if there could be a better, less wasteful (and potentially less harmful, if we consider the volume of blood lost) way of delivering care results in the opposite of value-based care. Mind you: this is one example, of which there are thousands — as such the it’s not surprising that the waste we’re considering is into the millions if not billions. It’s the price we pay for physician/institutional inertia.
Last example — the everyday patient. In June 2021 I was visiting upstate New York, and had a really interesting chat with a taxi driver (as an aside: some of my most interesting chats about healthcare happen to be with ride-share and taxi drivers). I’ll call him Dale, and the moment I entered his car he launched into a discussion about the American healthcare system. In his 70s, Dale is a blue-collar worker with a grade 10 education. He also served in the military for several years, including in Vietnam. Dale has several chronic health issues, including Type 2 diabetes that’s poorly managed and requires insulin, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. Recently his Medicare coverage stopped covering his insulin. This led to a very frank discussion with his primary care doctor, and Dale explained to me that he had all but “given up” and accepted that ‘death was around the corner’ (without insulin a patient with uncontrolled diabetes can go into organ failure and die). It was a very tragic example and a story that has stuck with me. Here we have an example of where, despite the high cost of care per patient in the US, we still have millions of people like Dale, who actually need the spending, who fall through the cracks, and adopt an almost resigned/pessimistic view of their longterm healthcare.
All three of these stories help us understand the puzzle pieces behind what we know as “value-based care.” But there is one more story that’s crucial, and particularly topical now: that of physician ‘burnout’ (aka anxiety, depression, etc) secondary to buckling under the pressures of performance, including the expectation to provide ‘value based care.’ When I mentioned cognitive load and institutional inertia/physician inertia earlier, it was because we must also understand that both of these concepts are in term impacted by the well-being of the physician. A stressed- out, unsupported, demoralized healthcare professional is unlikely to have either the time or the energy to stop to re-evaluate if they are ordering the appropriate test, or more broadly if they are providing the best possible care — one that maximizes outcomes for the patient and minimizes costs (not to mention makes the physician ‘feel’ like they’re making a difference).
Value-based care, in other words, must also, as it’s core assumption, place ‘value’ on physician health and well-being. It should be easier to provide value-based patient care, not more difficult, and there is value inherent in ensuring the physician feels good, remains healthy and thriving before/during/after delivering patient care.
Now that I’ve [hopefully] painted the problem clearly, we can agree that the *system* has to change. But for it to change in a sustainable way, the tweaks can’t just be topdown — from government or insurers for instance. We need to be thinking more creatively, like an entrepreneur. We need to ask how, to paraphrase Buckminster Fuller, of ways in which we can make the old system of how physicians are incentivized to deliver care, obsolete. The only way to do that is to create a better system, one that provides incentives that align with what doctors value.
Is there a way to provide value-based care while optimizing physician health/well-being and cutting down on unnecessary time wasted on administrative tasks? Yes.
Is there a way to improve patient outcomes while lowering costs, saving the most money on complex procedures that are actually needed. Yes.
Could this also involve taking a more whole-person/patient approach to healthcare? Yes.
So what might this potentially ‘better system’ look like? That’s the topic of the next newsletter, and an exciting announcement I have about a pivot in my own professional focus.
Have a healthy, joyful, and safe month,
Amitha Kalaichandran, M.D., M.H.S.
Mild and dire forecasting models serve different purposes, and can be tricky to interpret. But when they appear similar, it may signal the end of the pandemic.
CONSIDER THIS THOUGHT experiment: J is a 55 year-old patient who has smoked two packs of cigarettes a day since he was 22. He has just been diagnosed with stage III non-small-cell lung cancer. His doctor uses a series of methods, including a model, to decide his prognosis.
In Situation 1, his doctor uses the “precautionary principle” and presents the worst-case scenario based on a model of the worst case: J has about six months to live.
In Situation 2, the doctor bases her prognosis on future-projecting J’s present situation, by definition not the worst-case scenario and more “optimistic”: J has another two years to live.
Which scenario is better?
The answer isn’t so straightforward. In medicine, prognostication is fraught with its own challenges and depends largely on the data and model used, which may not perfectly apply to an individual patient. More importantly: The patient is part of the model. If the information used then shifts the patient’s behavior, the model itself changes–more precisely, the weights given to certain variables in the model change either toward a more negative or positive outcome. In the first scenario, J may decide to shift his behavior to make the most of his next six months, perhaps extending it to nine months or longer. Does that mean the model was inaccurate? No. It does mean that knowledge of the model helped nudge J toward a more optimistic outcome. In the second scenario the opposite may happen: J may continue his two-pack-a-day smoking habit, or only cut down to a pack a day, which may hasten a more negative outcome. It’s entirely possible that J in Situation 1 lives for two years, and in Situation 2 lives for six months.
This pattern exists everywhere, from prognosticating climate change to even polling (knowing poll results can affect voting behavior, potentially changing the outcome). We’ve seen a similar dilemma with Covid-19 pandemic modeling, which may help explain the divisiveness over everything from when the pandemic may end to whether lockdowns are appropriate. Last year, just as the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 a global pandemic, I wrote about uncertainty and risk perception. When faced with uncertainty we defer to experts, but a month later the National Institute of Health’s Anthony Fauci correctly noted that experts are fraught with predicting what was (and still is) a “moving target.”
Over the past few weeks we’ve seen more opinion pieces focused on optimism: that herd immunity will be reached by April, and summer will be more like 2019, wide open and carefree. We’ve also seen how this optimism, based on a “present-day accurate model” can sway behavior: from schools opening (but then locking back down) to Texas’ recent removal of its mask mandate potentially contributing to an uptick in cases. Others have taken a more pessimistic approach, saying it may be another two years until things “return to normal,” and the virus variants are a “whole other ballgame.” Today, in Michigan and in Canada, a potential variant-fueled third wave suggests a less optimistic outlook (for now). We’re all deeply familiar with how this pattern has repeated itself several times over the past year, and even experts disagree (and some have changed tack). It’s more than just bad news bias. But how do we reconcile this dichotomy between the “optimists” and the “pessimists”? It may come down to how we understand the purpose of epidemiological models in general, and the two types of pandemic forecasting models.
Justin Lessler is an associate professor of epidemiology at Johns Hopkins University and is part of a team that regularly contributes to the Covid-19 Forecast Hub. He specifies that there are four main types of models: theoretical, which help us understand how disease systems work; strategic, which help public officials make decisions, including to “do nothing”; inferential, which help estimate things like levels of herd immunity; and forecasting, which project what will happen in the future based on our best guess how the response and epidemic will actually unfold.
When it comes to forecasting models, there are those whose forecasts are not worst-case scenario by definition (thus more optimistic), which aim to describe present-day patterns in transmission and susceptibility and project out, assuming the current patterns stay the same. In these “dynamic causal models” a variety of different variables are added to also include, as University College London based biomathematician Karl Friston described, unknown factors that affect how the virus spreads, dubbed “dark matter.”
Then there are forecasting models guided by the “precautionary principle,” aka “scenario models,” where the assumptions are often the most conservative. These account for the worst-case scenario, to allow governments to best prepare with supplies, hospital beds, vaccines, and so forth. In the UK, the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies focuses on these models and thus guides policy around lockdowns. In the US, President Biden’s Covid-19 task force is the closest equivalent, while the epidemiologists and actuaries that appear nonconformist may be the closest we get to a group like the Independent SAGE (which Friston works with).
“The type of modeling we do for the Independent SAGE is concerned with getting the granularity right, ensuring the greatest fit–with minimal complexity–to help us look under the hood, as it were, at what is really going on,” Friston told me. “So, the fundamental issue is namely, do we comply with the precautionary principle using worst-case scenario modeling of unmitigated responses, or do we commit to the most accurate models of mitigated response?”
This gets to the heart of the tension between various “experts.” For instance, epidemiologists like Stanford’s John Ioannidis have tended to be more concerned with modeling the pandemic to accurately explain current patterns (and extending this pattern into the future), which can come off as more optimistic and isn’t typically used to guide policy.
**Originally published in Wired, March 2021**
A series of interviews with pioneers bringing the world of wellness and technology to make meaningful change.
Parlaying a cancer diagnosis into an advocacy powerhouse, Ann Marie Giannino gives voice to people impacted by breast cancer, MS, and mental health issues. Since establishing the non-profit Stupid Dumb Breast Cancer organization in 2012, AnnMarie has worked tirelessly to engage the community through awareness programs and fundraising initiatives, and to ensure that everyone who suffers is heard. She currently serves as Director of Communities for Wisdo.com. Wisdo was created by Boaz Goan, in memory of his father, Benny Goan, who touched many with his wisdom. Goan wrote about the origin story and mission of Wisdo for Medium in 2016, writing: “Wisdom is practical knowledge. It’s what’s learned in hindsight. Kernels of “if only I had known then what I know now” information meant to pass along so that others can benefit.”
Amitha: What has the response been so far? And growth patterns (including by age but also geography — are some countries/regions more on board vs others)?
For me personally I have watched and nurture Wisdo from the start. We had ten guides when the platform started to over 100 now and over 3,000 helpers. We are global for sure USA and UK seem to be our strongest. The age range is amazing. 19 to 70!! I love the fact we can connect with so many ages to share a common story. There is truly something hopeful talking to someone older than you who has gotten through a really hard time. We have over 1.5million registered users now – the community is growing and thriving.
Amitha: What has the impact been, in terms of general comments and any measurable things (research if available — has it made a difference among people with diagnosis of depression or those with depressed mood that is self-described?)
Annmarie: Again I would like to speak about the community. Wisdo is this amazing safe space to talk about things that are hard to hear. Many regular users on other social platforms don’t get seen because of the algorithms, and the follower count. By creating an environment where our members feel safe to express their dark thoughts we have instantly helped. Not talking and hiding behind safeguards will only perpetuate the stigma and make those living with depression feel alone. Wisdo does the opposite. We show those living with many mental health crises that talking is just what they need and talking to those who have been there can show them they will get through. This also validates what they are going through, they can see in our community that they are not the only ones feeling this. What an amazing way to show people that talking is safe and that even though their depression may look different we all are going through something similar.
Awhile ago a girl – a 19 year old who just got out of rehab has posted in a ‘coping with addiction’ group. And her recovery was similar to them. I clicked “Been there” (a button on the app). And she replied and said “thank you for reacting to my post.” And I replied. So here’s this 19 year old looking near a 40-something year old and got so much hope. We need that so desperately. When you sign up for a support group, regardless of age or ethnicity, but you’re all connected based on a similar experience. We get a lot out of knowing someone’s story, so for the most part it’s a peer-to-peer support. It’s not about misery loving company…people with depression want to connect to people who know what they’re going through.
Amitha: What are your thoughts on the general trend, if you agree it’s a trend, of social media looking at ways to i)decrease its toxicity/addiction potential ii)improve mental health and well-being? What other apps/companies are thinking about the same problem and seem interesting to you? Social media has 100% made Mental Health “trending”.
Annmarie: The issue is while the general public sees this as a plus those who work in the mental health world see the problem. We are looking at pretty images of depression on IG, we see all the likes some get for posting, our world is at an all-time high for substance use disorder because it is “5 o’clock” somewhere, Eating Disorders have skyrocketed and domestic abuse is immeasurable right now. With the wave of COVID we will not know the true impact of how it has affected Mental Health for at least 2 years. We are living in an age where likes are giving many anxiety because they are not getting enough. Wisdo is not about social competition but connecting with those feeling like you do to help you see you are not alone.
Amitha: In 5 years where do you think social media in GENERAL (so the big names like Facebook, Instagram etc) will look like? And will they me more aligned with apps like
Wisdo, or will they be obsolete, i.e. replaced with platforms that connect people in healthier ways?
Annmarie: Personally I have seen a change in Instagram but more on the silence side. They are block certain # because they are scared of the conversations. If other apps would take in how Wisdo creates a space to have a real honest discussion about self-harm with healthy alternatives and understanding why this happens we would be ahead of the game. I think as we go into the next 2 years Instagram, Facebook TikTok will all have shifts. Mental Health workers and advocates are looking for Wisdo like platforms to send people to just to connect because crisis lines are overwhelmed. While Instagram and Facebook use moderation tools to watch their platforms TikTok is using algorithms which has proven to be problematic. Wisdo uses moderation with watchlist words that our team of volunteers keep an eye on. Our community supports each other and wants everyone to be heard. We have done an amazing job of letting people express themselves while keeping our community safe.
Amitha: What are you most excited about with Wisdo and what’s on the horizon that you can discuss now?
Annmarie: I remember a long time ago saying to Boaz “Wisdo has no personality” I think this bothered him a little bit, however what it did was show our team what was missing. Wisdo is alive with helpers, guides, coaches all wanting to engage the community. Watching Wisdo embark on some exciting new projects that will not just bring in members but a diverse group is really impactful. We all take a breath the same way and sometimes we forget that. Watching older adults come into the app and give their story to young adults is truly inspirational!
A series of interviews with pioneers bringing the world of wellness and technology to make meaningful change.
From her work on the initial Sephora team to her experiences in manufacturing, consulting, and brand strategy for companies like Gap Inc., Cisco, and Landor, Melody Mortazavi has been passionate about creating brands her entire career. Mortazavi is an entrepreneur who believes in the power of connection, and she founded UME in Menlo Park with that vision in mind. After UME was acquired, Mortazavi continued to pursue her love of brands and human connection by co-founding Longwalks with Trishla Jain.
Trishla Jain is an author, artist, and entrepreneur. Throughout her career, Trishla’s work has focused on helping people communicate and connect mindfully. She is an author of a mindful children’s book series and an accomplished artist with exhibitions exploring the intersection of joy, gratitude, and minimalism. Trishla sought to build a better way to spark meaningful conversations and deepen personal relationships online, co-founding Longwalks with Melody Mortazavi.
Amitha: So I downloaded Longwalks back in December, and I can’t remember where I had first heard about it – it might have been through Oprah magazine or a tweet she posted? It’s so well designed, and I love the concept. What got you motivated to create it? And what spurred the interest in well-being and self-care?
Melody: I think that we approached this in a very personal way to start with. We (Trishla and I) met quite serendipitously, and she had invited me to a conversation, sort of a Jeffersonian type dinner, at her home, where she had crafted a really beautiful conversation for the evening. The conversation was designed to bring 10 women together who had never met before in the most optimal way possible. And yes, that's very “Silicon Valley,” but like everywhere else in the world we're all quite pressed for time and so she wanted to create the perfect environment for us to really get to know each other. And that meant getting to know each other outside of what we do or what our significant others do or where our children go to school, which are the typical things you generally hear from each other when you first get to know someone. There was a question that was posed about a poem that grounded the conversation, and each person just shared, one at a time, as we went around the table, about a story that that poem reminded them of. It was a very new way to have a conversation because you actually got to sit there and really listen to what the other person was saying. And then when it was your turn, you could speak essentially your truth. And so, this form of uninterrupted one-direction type of sharing was really beautiful. It was really transformative for me, and I had never been in a conversation with someone else or a group of people where I didn't actually have to work very hard to keep the conversation going. And this was just a really beautiful way of connecting with other people at the table, and after the third or fourth time we had done this, I started thinking about the ways people are connecting with each other now digitally. So we started thinking about how to deliver this same sort of experience to others. I think, when social media was designed and developed, people didn't really think about the negative impact on mental health. They didn't think about the impact on people's relationships or attention spans, and all the things that you very well know. So we embarked on this very ambitious mission of creating a truly supportive and kind social platform where people can share their stories in a way that I was alluding to, to really tell the things about themselves that really matter to them and make up who they are: like the really the good juicy stuff of who you are. And so I think what we did really beautifully was really utilize psychology, Eastern philosophy and a lot of really mindful meditation practices to create a platform that not only provides the content that's that really helps people connect, but also create this really beautiful safe space which we hear about time and time again.
Trishla: I mean your question was really why we started Longwalks, and in essence I think the quality of our human relationships, the depth and intimacy of them is one of the primary indicators of lifelong long-lasting happiness and kind of what the Harvard Study of Adult Development says.
When you look back, a fulfilled life is one with beautiful deep relationships. So that's really kind of the vector where we wanted to focus. It all came together in this beautiful way. And the way Longwalks is really different is that in some sense it's not open-ended, unlike every other social platform where you can kind of share whatever it is you want to share, using various formats. We've really created a little bit of a cocoon around the user using our prompt. So, we provide one single piece of content, which is a fill-in-the blank question every day. And that's it. It's very simple. It's very equalizing pretty much being a human. I've had a lot families say that they do it with their kids. They do it on their phone with adults and then at night they use it at the dinner table, and they make all their little kids like six year old, seven year old, kids fill it out. So it’s kind of just like a moment where you get to share something and then we anchor we map out the whole year. In 365 days we kind of cover a large aspect of what the human experience. And it's beautiful because you don't really have to think about what you're sharing and get yet if you're doing this with people on the platform. You get to experience humanity and living together.
I think that I've been practicing this formula of sort of asking a question and then making everyone answer it in the fill-in-the-blank model for a very long time, since high school, so it's just kind of my modus operandi. This was the first time I had kind of done this in Silicon Valley and Melody happened to be there, and then with serendipity, one thing led to the other and in 2017 Melody started to think of this as like a full-fledged business rather than just a private kind of experience with friends, but by then we must have had over, 250 of such dinners like that. And the digital format kind of coincided with COVID, even though it started way before COVID it just, there's so there's a lot of serendipity in our journey.
Melody: What matters is that the question has to be supportive enough for people to want to access that as a nugget to share it with somebody else, so 2017 was a year of focus grouping, really, essentially, and then figuring out how we want to how we want to deliver this what it would look like, as a feeling to bottle up. I think one of the beautiful parts of the digital platform is that you can have that feeling with someone, all the way across the world, who has like a completely different socio economic background is of a different race and gender and every everything is different about them, but you can actually have that exchange of that feeling with that person. And that's what's happened to me a lot -- I've randomly met probably 20 or 30 people who are now my friends on Longwalks, that I share with, and I don't even know where they live!
Amitha: That's amazing. I was just talking to someone about on most apps or social media there aren’t really incentives to be civil. And I’ve likened it to a dinner party, where if you aren’t civil, even if you have opposing views, you won’t get invited again. But there’s this feeling where it's almost invigorating when you have a really interesting discussion or debate, or you know that feeling of being connected. So you're, totally right – it’s super hard to get that online with a lot of the apps that are out there right now that are being used.
Trishla: I read that you're also Yogi and you love yoga. And I think with Longwalks it’s that synchronicity that sometimes gets missed. Like when you're in a yoga class, the entire class is participating in a series of motions, everybody's on the same page and moving together. And that creates a very harmonious flow. It's not like everybody's doing their own thing. One of the most unique things about our platform is that everybody's doing the same ‘pose’ as in answering the same prompt. So you feel you're not alone, like you're just all different rays of the same sun.
Amitha: I love that analogy. So the actual digital element was that rolled out in 2020 then you're saying just around the pandemic?
Melody: The first version of the app was launched in August of 2018. We had been working towards a solution for a couple years before the pandemic hit.. What we've done really mindfully is that we are building this app for our users, and we have a big cohort of users who really love this app. And so we build and we iterate based on their needs, that you know of course are aligned with, with the mission. So we have taken quite a few updates and changes to the app in order to best align with our with our users, and when COVID happened and we all went into lockdown in March, had just launched our best MVP (minimum viable product) to date. And so we saw this really beautiful alignment of user with product. And that's when we had a significant uptake in users, and we have really great App Store reviews that are all organic and just people's real experiences. So, the alignment was really great, during a time where it was so uncertain for everybody. We were providing a tool that was helping people feel better. That was helping people feel connected to each other not as far apart, was giving them something to anchor their daily practices so that they could answer something with the people in their lives. And it was really helping them stay close to the people they couldn't be close to. And so that really gave us a whole big lift in order to kind of keep going and keep building and keep doing what we're doing
Amitha: Why the name Longwalks?
Trishla: Many reasons. Some of them are practical, you know, in the sense of wanting to have a name that's unique and all of that, but really Melody and I are just nature lovers who love to walk and we think of human relationships as kind of like walking hand in hand. And we think that sometimes the best conversations you can have is when you're on a long walk with a friend. Because the conversation just organically flows, and you're enjoying the earth, so there's many different kind of connotations. I don't know -- Melody what does the name mean exactly?
Melody: I will just embellish a little bit more in that I think that the experience we try to mimic on Longwalks, is really that kind of those special moments that you have during a long walk, you know those really those heartfelt conversations that you really get to know people that's essentially I think what we hope toreplicate.
Amitha: How do you feel like, like how is the uptake been so you obviously launched in 2018, you were saying, um, have you seen an uptake. I mean, as I mentioned, I've heard about it. I think through either Oprah Magazine or something, some something over related.
Melody: She gave us a shout out! Oprah’s a gifted conversationalist and gifted person at making anybody feel important and worth listening to. And I think we've always just reached out to her along the way when we've needed guidance or calibration or just talking to someone whose life's work has been about helping people connect meaningfully.The shout out was definitely a big surprise to us- we had no idea it was coming. And I think I was on a long walk at the time because I hike a lot on the weekends, and our biggest concern was ‘oh my God are the server's gonna crash?’ Luckily they didn't and our tech team, they're all just incredible. So, it was a great shout out from her that kind of validated the experience that all the users were having. They were really grateful for Longwalks during a time where there wasn't a lot to be grateful for.
Amitha: Definitely. So have you found during this pandemic that uptake has increased like? Because apps are tough in terms of getting people to stay on them. But I think that what you're offering is unique, so I would hope that there's more people are more incentivized to like stick to it.
Melody: I mean I think that's where we started the conversation is ‘How do you have social wellness’ and ‘what does that even look like’ as in having a healthy relationship with this phone and the things we do on it. And I think that one thing we try to do as we definitely don't hold ourselves accountable to the same vanity metrics that other social companies, hold themselves accountable to. So for us time spent on app is measured a little bit differently for us, because it's important to have a depth of relationship. We don't make it about Facebook likes or friend counts or friends lists and things like that because it's just, it's a different platform it's a more niche platform and I think our goal is to empower the depth of relationships and authentic connections, and helping people find like-minded people on Longwalks. When we are looking at acquiring users we unfortunately have to use the same mediums that other people use, and do your standard performance marketing things but the way I sleep at night is to think that I am leveraging these other social media platforms to bring people to Longwalks. It’s a healthier and better way to communicate with the people that they want to communicate with.We don't expect to take over. So the time that you spend on Instagram or Facebook we just hope to kind of counterbalance it with things that fill your bucket and make you feel really good about the people that you're talking to.
Amitha: I'm sure you both watch The Social Dilemma. I'm sure it's not a surprise, in terms of what they presented, but do you have any thoughts on sort of how Longwalks fits in? I guess you've sort of answered that question as it being a buffer or counterbalance?
Trishla: Tristan is one of the early attendees to dinners. And at the end of the dinner he shared a very profound experience about his mother and said ‘I challenge you to bring this to tech as I've never seen it.’ And at the end of The Social Dilemma they pose a question, you know, as in ‘what is the solution?’ They don't offer solutions. So we really feel like Longwalks is very sustainable, because it only takes a few minutes maybe 5-10 minutes a day. It's a very sustainable solution to create social wellness in your life, using your phone.
Melody: I think it's just a really actionable solution. So that's how we think of it as well, in relation to The Social Dilemma, and Longwalks is literally designed as an antithesis to all of the problems of social media. So, it's designed to not feel like a popularity contest -- we don't display any kind of counts. We don't publicly display how many people have liked your post. We don't let you know how many friends people have or any kind of numerical things like that. The way that our commenting works is that it's pre-scripted to be extremely supportive and kind. So it really eliminates that culture of bullying or negative commenting that occurs in other platforms. It's very unified like I said and has synchronicity because everybody's on the same page and answering the same questions. You don't get a lot of distortion or distraction there's no ads. There, nobody's trying to sell you anything. So a lot of the problems associated with social media just don't happen on our Longwalks: we've created a situation where they won't happen. But we always have our eyes open, just to see if things are creeping into that territory.
Amitha: Do you feel you're also sort of self-selecting as well for people that are not going to be that way maybe?
Trishla: We have the very committed and sticky users who use both regular social media and Longwalks, and then there are of course the people who doing a detox off other social media, so only doing Longwalks. So we find that it works really for anyone who wants to have a kind of new social wellness habit in their day.
Amitha: Got it. And then so you were mentioning I mean it sounds like when you, when you mentioned like Tristan Harris, for example, it sounds like you're pretty plugged into the Silicon Valley community so I'm curious to know like what your, what both of your backgrounds are in in tech, like a different form of tech before you could work for, you know, big tech before this like without a motivator. Tell me a little bit about that.
Melody: I actually come from a retail background and brand strategy background but during the latest part of my career I worked for Cisco and I did Internet Business Solutions consulting so I do come from a slight tech background but my specialty is really optimizing retail solutions for consumers. And then after I got pregnant with my first child I didn't want to consult anymore. I was not going to get on a plane every week, and so I decided I came up with this idea for a children's play space, and this was at the time where there were no other really placed bases around, so we raised a seed round and opened a 15,000 square foot children's indoor play space in Menlo Park called U-Me, so that I could work, and do something with my brain but also bring my kids to work. And so I did that for about seven or eight years and then that was acquired. Then I decided to go back into the corporate world.
Amitha: I'm just trying to imagine what it would look like in Silicon Valley like a big play space I imagine all of the, all of the activities are planned intentional and…
Trishla: Very. It was so beautiful I mean she has an unbelievable eye for design, they have this kind of minimal Scandinavian aesthetic where everything had a purpose, there wasn't any like random stuff and it was really the child was at the center of the experience and the child could direct it to play very well so, and she used a lot of that learning. I can see how she applies that user experience design in Longwalks.
Amitha: What about you Trishla?
Trishla: I grew up in India, and my family runs the Times of India group. So I kind of grew up
enmeshed in those walls. And then I went to an American school and then I came to the U.S. for college (Stanford) during college and fell in love with English literature, so I had a circuitous path where [I then attended Columbia University to do graduate work in education then] worked in brand marketing in New York. And after that, I went back to India and just worked at times in different capacities, learning about print. And then also learning a lot about how to embark into the digital world. I did that, and then I became a full-time artist, which is kind of my deeper love, where I had three solo exhibitions in India while having children.
Amitha: What sort of art?
Trishla: Painting. But during that time, I would say my main real job is being a full time Yogi. I did so many maybe 50 silent retreats like Vipassana. Yeah. Even a few 60-day ones where I left my husband with my parents. And I think that was just a time of profound growth intellectually, emotionally, physically and every way. And then we both moved here to America about four years ago. But we were thinking of it as coming back to Stanford, where me and my husband met. He runs the digital business of Times of India. Tristan is really more of a Stanford connection than a Silicon Valley connection.
Amitha: Got it. It sounds like you've had some really interesting experiences, both in India as well as in the US, and that blending of Eastern and Western practices in the sense?
Trishla: When you have profound meditation, it's almost like you just want to give back to the world in whatever way you can and then I found Melody.
Amitha: Yes, serendipitously! I'm such a fan of serendipity and have noticed that in my life as well. So obviously you both women of color – Melody you have Persian (Iranian) heritage, and Trishla you were born in India. How does that sort of affect or impact your experience in Silicon Valley as founders, anything that you want to share about that, like, in terms of opportunities or barriers?
Melody: So I think that if I had to talk for a moment about whenever I feel inadequate or when I feel that maybe I am not. I am not on par with the audience that I'm keeping has not necessarily been ever because I'm a woman, I think, for me it has always been a feeling that because I don't come from that so called White, tech, engineer, or a certain pedigree, I think that feels very heavy for women. I think that there's a certain level of...I think Trishla and I just don’t let it get to us, otherwise it becomes very demoralizing. So I think we do a very good job of tuning those things out and really making it about the product that we're building, and the solution where it could do with the solution we're giving to people. And because we are in a space of wellness, it makes it a little bit more comfortable, but for sure I would say it's very hard to maintain your confidence and not feel adequate being in the Valley and being women who are not from a pure tech background.
Trishla: I think one of the things my dad always taught me is that you have to turn your disadvantages into your greatest advantages. So in some ways, I like to think of it as this idea that we're fresh blood, like we never think of a solution on the product the way a veteran Facebook person or someone who spent 10 years at Google. And I think being mothers what matters is we care so much about building a future for our children. So we both have two young children, each and Melody's kids are older and she sees them already interacting with social media, and she wants to create a new alternative, kind of like a different way for her daughter to portray herself in the world. One option is for her to take a beautiful picture glowing skin and maybe comment on how sunny and beautiful it is in California on Instagram, and the other is to talk about maybe something totally different, something meaningful or something she's focusing on or, which is more Longwalks’ aim.
Melody: And people gravitate towards Longwalks generally are pretty open minded.
Amitha: One the things I’ve noticed when about individuals that are trying to make a difference in healthcare, almost all of them are described themselves as like outsiders. So people that early in life might have felt like they needed to fit in for one reason or another, because of their background or their way of thinking or whatever but over time they realize that those differences were actually an asset, and that was what sort of fueled them to think differently and make changes because as you can appreciate health care and the health system which is a very antiquated system. But the people that are actually making change are the ones that can actually see the solutions because they have an outsider sort of perspective. And I think, you know, it's our perspective and I also think it's a bit of grit as well like if you're someone that's used to adapting but you're also sort of like you're maybe a little bit grittier as well. I think that that's super interesting that you both seem to identify with that as well. Was there anything that I didn't ask you that you think is really important.
Ok my last question! Because I have an epidemiology I'm always interested in research. Have you thought about looking at the data in terms of assessing how people are feeling using the app? Could it be an intervention or studied in some way in terms of short and long-term impacts on mental and emotional health? Or do you have a sense of this already?
Trishla: I would say intuitively, qualitatively, the feedback indicates a resounding yes, that people see a kind of marked uplift in their emotional states, reduction in depression, reduction in anxiety, and loneliness. However, it would be a dream come true I think for Melody and I to have that documented in a way that's actually scientific with rigor.
Melody: We're looking at a way actually to incorporate these questions into the user journey to get a sense of how it has impacted them and the main reason we wanted to do that was just so we can make sure that we are staying true to their needs and really able to satisfy kind of those things so we are looking into it right now. I think given the pandemic and everything that's happening, I just feel a little uneasy asking users to fill in those questions. But definitely I think going down the line, it’s something we will be doing.
A series of interviews with pioneers bringing the world of wellness and technology to make meaningful change.
Miri Polachek is the CEO of Joy Ventures, the start-up studio building, funding and supporting companies developing consumer products for wellbeing. Miri joined Joy Ventures as CEO in 2018, bringing with her an extensive background in health and finance. Prior to Joy Ventures, Miri amassed a decade of experience in the pharmaceutical industry, working in financial management at Teva Pharmaceuticals and Pfizer and serving as VP Finance at healthcare services firm IntegraMed. She co-founded and served as the Executive Director of Israel Brain Technologies (IBT), a non-profit organization envisioned by former Israeli President Shimon Peres that accelerated brain-related innovation and positioned Israel as a leading global braintech hub. Miri holds a BA in Economics and Mathematics and an MA in Health Economics from Boston University, as well as an MBA from New York University Stern School of Business.
Amitha: I’m so interested in what brought you into this field, and what you think is on the horizon in terms of the intersection of well-being and tech. Can we reverse some of this damage that we've seen from technology? Is it about investing in companies that are focused on tackling this issue?
Miri:I've always been very passionate about health and health care. My mom is a neuroscientist, and my dad is an engineer and high-tech entrepreneur, so, science, technology and entrepreneurship were always conversations at the kitchen table. While I actually studied economics and finance, I found myself working in the healthcare industry because I was always very passionate about improving people's lives. I initially found myself in the pharmaceutical industry and then worked in various financial management roles in a few large global corporations. But over the years, mental health and brain health became a very strong passion of mine, in part because of having this strong neuroscience presence at home and having worked on product teams at both Teva and at Pfizer, but also because of having a brother living with a mental illness.
When I moved back to Israel 10 years ago, I jumped into the start-up ecosystem, and established and led a non-profit organization called Israel Brain Technologies, an initiative whose mission was to position Israel as a leading neuroscience innovation hub, specifically by commercializing Israel’s brain-related innovation. There, I helped run an accelerator focused on brain technology start-ups, and a very successful international conference that brought together the entire ecosystem of researchers clinicians, entrepreneurs, and investors. Working there was an amazing privilege, and several start-ups that went through the program have advanced in their development and some are already succeeding in the market.
Then about three years ago, Joy Ventures approached me to join them. I was already familiar with Joy, having been part of the same community interested in innovation in neuroscience and what Joy was calling “neuro wellness” at the time. Joy Ventures’ cared about understanding the healthy brain better in order to understand how we deal with stress and how we can improve our emotional wellbeing.
Amitha: I was really intrigued by Joy’s vision, because it takes an approach of looking at the science or innovating effective solutions that are not simply passing trends or gimmicks.
Miri: The word “wellbeing” is really something that we at Joy Ventures want to back up with technology that works, that makes a meaningful change in people’s lives, and that is enjoyable to use. Many wellbeing products create a nice experience, but the question is whether they actually create some kind of a change for the user. This could mean helping them relax or helping them sleep better, etc. This driving factor was what brought me to Joy in early 2018. I was first and foremost intrigued by the vision, which was to build a portfolio of companies that would help people feel good. At the time (several years ago) however, this sector was still very young, so the challenge was how to actually find companies that match our vision. At the time, we were looking primarily in Israel and there weren't that many companies back then, even worldwide, that fit our mission.
Some of the companies that are now unicorns were just starting out in 2018 and hadn't yet proven themselves in the market. There were a few companies that were starting to become household names. The Joy model is very much about incubating new companies, which means finding companies very early on and helping them develop their product concept, validate their ideas with users, and then gradually go to market. We also work to create awareness and community around innovation in this space.
Over these last three years, Joy Ventures has evolved as an organization; we've expanded our scope. While we are based in Israel, we invest globally. In fact, over the last year, we made our first investments both in the United States and in Europe. We just recently invested in a company based in Boston and founded by MIT researchers called Embr Labs, who created a thermal regulation wrist wearable that helps people adjust their body temperature sensation.
Amitha: It’s a form of biofeedback?
Miri: Yes. The wristband allows you to better regulate your temperature in terms of hotter or colder. In the future, Embr Labs also plans to enable a sensing or a closed loop capability. The wristband can help with sleep and is currently primarily being used to help “primetime women” in the menopausal stage, in which they are experiencing hot flashes. We also recently invested in a UK-based company called Empathic Technologies that created Doppel, another wrist wearable that helps to generate calm through haptic technology involving vibrations to your peripheral nerves. These vibrations, when at a high frequency, imitate your heartbeat, so it can cause the brain to either become more stimulated or calmer.
We're now also taking a much broader look at wellbeing, interpreting that word very broadly in order to pursue technologies or products that create some kind of meaningful change for the user through a delightful usage experience. This includes emotional wellbeing, physical wellbeing, and social wellbeing, which is one of our main focuses in 2021 due to the ongoing pandemic. We expect that social wellbeing will be one of the main issues this year compared to the past as loneliness and social isolation continue.
Amitha: That's an interesting topic because social media, to a degree, has been really helpful for some people during this pandemic to feel more connected, but we also know that there are issues with social media too and there's almost like an inverted U-curve or something: it’s dose dependent perhaps?
Miri: Definitely, and I think it's both dose and content dependent. We recently invested in a very exciting company that created a different kind of social network focused on rewarding those who are helpful rather than those who are popular.
Amitha: Do you think that these sort of apps that focus on well-being online can translate to offline social behavior? Specifically, in terms of creating connections offline. Yeah, so I guess what I'm thinking of is, for example, the recent riots in the US, on January 6th. There was a lot of talk about how it was planned online. So, it has me wondering if, since toxicity can build online, which translates offline, can the opposite be true? Can empathy and understanding those different from us, if built online, translate offline?
Miri: Yes, I would agree that if we create good online, it would reinforce positive behaviors offline. This is why, when we look for future investments, we also look for products that combine the physical and digital worlds, especially in terms of how they facilitate contact with another person. For example, the startup Noom is a weight loss program that includes both a digital aspect via an app as well as a personal interaction with a real group coach. This real-life interaction creates a more natural relationship and a higher level of accountability.
Amitha: So what do you think are the big trends as it relates to well-being and tech? You wrote an article in Fortune that came out in August about emotion-tracking apps. Was there anything you would add to that?
Miri: I think that a major trend in 2021 will be technology that creates connections – like products that help us stay in touch with our loved ones and our colleagues remotely, and anything that helps people create and maintain relationships on a more significant and deeper level. We recently announced which is you know helping grandchildren and grandparents, you know, connect and maintain their relationships, better. So I think that's the whole sort of connectivity from IQ, you know, maintaining these deeper relationships is going to be.
We're already seeing a lot of this technology take off. There has been a lot of traction around corporate wellbeing and solutions designed specifically for the workplace, that help maintain corporate culture and connections in a remote environment. If in the past employers’ premiums or health insurance grants were reduced because they’ve got an office gym, now this trend is expanding and offering a lot more through the corporate environment.
Amitha: Just at the start of the pandemic, around March or April 2020, I did a little interview series for Mind Body Green, interviewing different sort of public figures around what they were doing for their well-being. Almost everyone talked about routines, which I think is what you're getting at: these little moments in the day when you can sort of build in something to keep your routine that keeps you well and keeps anxiety at bay. I mean, again this was very early in the pandemic but it was interesting to hear that people were already understanding that the only way that we can sort of get through this is if we have a good sense of what our days are going to look like. This fits into well-being and all of that sort of thing. What do you think is one of the biggest challenges or barriers to this marriage between tech and well-being like?
Miri: I think the biggest challenge is the burden the tech developers and creators face in gaining the trust of their customers by proving that the products they created have a studied and tested impact. Some of these companies, especially those that are bringing in new approaches and new technologies, need to educate the market a bit before gain consumers’ trust.
Amitha: I wanted to end with a two-part question. First, how are you doing with all of this especially someone in the well-being space? Maybe you're doing better than most? And then the second part is: what are things that you build in personally in your day to keep you well during this time.
Miri: Thanks for asking. One thing that I always say about myself is that I was blessed with natural resilience. From a young age, I developed some strong coping mechanisms that have helped me handle stress and uncertainty, including during this challenging time, and I'm very grateful for that. There have of course been times during this past year that were really scary, and primarily I've been worried about my children. I think that depending on their age, not all children have those kinds of necessary tools to deal with all these changes yet. I have three kids who are extremely social, and it hasn't been easy to be separated from their friends so constantly. But thankfully, my whole family has been healthy. I think if we can teach our kids tools to cope with stress in different ways, they are much better off. Joy Ventures as an organization has luckily also been able to continue operating, though remotely. We feel blessed to be healthy and employed, and so I don't think we can ask for much more.
What I do for my own well being is highly conventional. I exercise, meditate, and try to spend a lot of time outdoors in nature. We live near the sea, so I like to spend a lot of time walking on the beach and sailing. We also have a lot of parks in Tel Aviv and I like to be around the greenery. I'm also lucky that I sleep well and I do make sure to get enough sleep.
Some of America’s biggest companies should consider leveraging their logistical capabilities—from using drive-thru windows for screening to turning megastores into diagnostic and treatment centers—as part of their corporate social responsibility, during these dire times.
Dear CEOs of McDonalds, Apple, Nike, and Marriott:
As you probably know, the success of both China and South Korea in decreasing the number of new cases of COVID-19 required both social distancing but also widespread testing and isolation of confirmed cases away from their homes. In other instances, testing even more aggressively made a big difference, and the World Health Organization now strongly recommends expanding COVID19 screening as well as isolation. Italy may have waited too long to implement crucial measures and North America has lagged behind for some time: estimates show that the US is now less than two weeks behind Italy and extremely behind in COVID-19 testing.
Testing is not widely available in the US and Canada, with the spread of misinformation leading symptomatic people to head to their local hospital or family doctor to try to get tested (with limited success while overburdening the system). It’s even more dire knowing that, in New York City for instance, an estimated 80% of ICU beds may already be occupied.
As powerful corporations, I hope you consider leveraging your own logistical capabilities, as part of your corporate social responsibility, during these very dire times—particularly in hotspots like Seattle, San Francisco, Toronto, Vancouver, and New York City. Here are some suggestions for what you can do during these perilous times.
Over the past week, McDonald’s announced they are closing seating. There are over 14,000 McDonald’s in the US alone, most of which have drive-thru windows.
So, my first idea involves pausing fast-food manufacturing for a few weeks in some of these outlets and using the existing drive-thru infrastructure for in-person fever screening (window 1) and COVID-9 throat swabs (window 2, if fever is present). These could be staffed with local nurses (wearing personal protective equipment, or PPE) who might typically work in community clinics that are currently closed. The brand recognition of McDonald’s means that most North Americans would easily be able to locate their nearest franchise. These would effectively serve as “Level 1” screening and diagnostic facilities for the next several weeks, with repeat testing weeks later to assess when an infection has cleared.
Second, over the past week, Apple (which has 272 stores in the US) and Nike (which has 350 stores) have closed their stores. Both of these stores, which maximize negative space and average several thousand square feet (so up to 4.5 million square feet of unused space), have design elements that may help reduce transmission during a pandemic. Some of these stores could be refashioned to serve as “Level 2” diagnostic and treatment centers, for more in-depth diagnoses and assessment of confirmed COVID-19–effectively “cohorting” positive cases together. Also, since both Nike and Apple have longstanding manufacturing relationships with China, with independent shipping and warehouse capabilities, they could help store any donated medical supplies from China and the country’s business leaders. Doctors who are not currently skilled to work in an emergency department or intensive care unit (for instance, most general practitioners) could administer the tests and basic treatment at these sites while wearing appropriate PPE, which offloads the burden on hospitals (which in turn serve as “Level 3” treatment sites for more advanced care). This could work better than military tents.
Third, China’s success in reducing transmission was in large part due to effectively quarantining cases away from their family (so as not to infect other family members). Yet building large quarantine centers, as China did, is not logistically feasible in North America. As such, now that there are fewer travelers, Marriott, which has wide reach across North America, could offer designated hotels in which to isolate the confirmed positives for 14 days to help induce “suppression.”
To be sure, North America should still follow the lead of both Britain and France by harnessing local manufacturing capabilities (which requires a Defense Protection Act), specifically for personal protective equipment like N95 masks, gloves, and gowns for first responders–this is even more crucial given the shortage. However, the bigger challenge will remain logistical. We may even end up having enough expensive equipment like ventilators (which may be used to serve multiple patients) if the milder cases are effectively identified and treated early.
I agree that “brands can’t save us” — but companies can leverage their strengths in collaboration with government. In fact, there have been countless examples from history of corporations pivoting to assist in public health challenges. The most prominent one that comes to mind is Coca-Cola. For decades, Coca-Cola offered its cold chain and other logistical capabilities to assist public health programs to deliver vaccines and antiretroviral medications, because donating money, simply put, just isn’t enough.
Through innovation, you’ve been able to place a thousand songs in our pockets, boast the largest market share of footwear, become the biggest hotel chain in the world, and serve as the most popular fast food company. Facilitating widespread screening, diagnostic testing, and facilitating the safe isolation and treatment of mild-moderate cases is not an impossible feat, especially if you work together with the healthcare system. Instead of allowing your brick-and-mortar businesses to sit idle please consider pivoting towards a solution in collaboration with government, as part of a coordinated and effective pandemic response.
Time is running out.
**Originally published in Fast Company on March 19 2020**
Canadian and international initiatives aim to apply AI to help solve global health conundrums
As we grapple with the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, the pattern of viral spread may have been identified as early as Dec. 31, 2019, by Toronto-based BlueDot.
The group identified an association between a new form of pneumonia in China and a market in Wuhan, China, where animals were being sold and reported the pattern a full week ahead of the World Health Organization (which reported on Jan. 9) and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (which reported it on Jan. 6).
Dr. Kamran Khan, a professor of medicine and public health at the University of Toronto, founded the company in 2014, in large part after his experience as an infectious disease physician during the 2003 SARS epidemic.
The BlueDot team, which consists largely of doctors and programmers, numbering 40 employees, published their work in the Journal of Travel Medicine.
“Our message is that dangerous outbreaks are increasing in frequency, scale, and impact, and infectious diseases spread fast in our highly interconnected world,” Khan wrote via email. “If we want to get in front of these outbreaks, we are going to have to use the resources available to us — data, analytics, and digital technologies — to literally spread knowledge faster than the diseases spread themselves.”
In the past, BlueDot has been able to predict other patterns of disease spread, such as Zika outbreak in south Florida. Now its list of clients includes the Canadian government and health and security departments around the world. They combine AI with human expertise to monitor risk of disease spread for over 150 different diseases and syndromes globally.
BlueDot, as a company, speaks to the emerging trend of using AI for global health.
In India, for instance, Aindra Systems uses AI to assist in screening for cervical cancer. Globally, one woman dies every two minutes due to cervical cancer, and half a million women are newly diagnosed globally each year: 120,000 of these cases occur in India, where rates are increasing in rural areas.
Founded in 2012 by Adarsh Natarajan, the Aindra team recognized that, in India, mortality rates were high in part due to the six-week delay between collecting samples and reading pathology during cervical cancer screening programs. It was also a human resources issue: in India, one pathologist is expected to serve well over 134,000 Indians.
With the aim of reducing the workload burden and fatigue risk (misdiagnosis rates can increase if the reader is tired and overworked), Aindra built CervAstra. The automated program can stain up to 30 slides at a time and then identify, through an AI program called Clustr, the cells that most appear to be cancerous.
The pathologist then spends time on the flagged samples. Much like traditional global health programs, Aindra works closely with several hospitals and local NGOs in India, and hopes their technology may later be adopted by other developing countries.
“Point of care solutions like CervAstra are relevant to a lot of countries who suffer from forms of cancer but don’t have infrastructure or faculties to deal with it in population based screening programs,” Natarajan says.
Natarajan also points to other areas where AI is relevant in global health, such as drug discovery or assisting specific medical specialists in areas like radiology and pathology. Accenture was able to use AI to identify molecules of interest within 10 months as opposed to the typical timeline of up to 10 years.
The Vector Institute, based in Toronto, is also plugging into the potential of AI and global health. It works as an umbrella for several AI startups, some with a health focus and all aiming to have a global impact.
Melissa Judd, director of academic partnerships at Vector Institute, points to the United Nations’ sustainable development goals as a framework upon which to help orient AI towards improving global health. Lyme disease, for instance, is a global health issue that also comes up against the topic of climate change, and recently a Vector-supported AI initiative was able to identify ticks that spread of Lyme disease in Ontario.
Last December, the Vector Institute launched the Global Health and AI Challenge (GHAI) — a collaboration with the Dalla Lana School of Public Health to engage students from across the University of Toronto (from business to epidemiology to engineering) in critical dialogue and problem solving around a global health challenge.
The potential of AI for global health is immense. Major academic journals are also taking note. Last April the Lancet launched the Artificial Intelligence in Global Health report. By looking at 27 cases of how AI has been used in healthcare, editors proposed a framework to help accelerate the cost-effective use of AI in global health, primarily through collaboration between various stakeholders.
As well, a recent commentary in Science identified several key areas of potential for AI and global health, such as low-cost tools powered by AI (for instance an ultrasound powered through a smartphone) and improving data collection during epidemics.
Yet, the authors caution against seeing AI as a panacea and emphasize that empowering local, country-specific, technology talent will be key, as inequitable redistribution of access to AI technology could worsen the rich-poor divide in global health.
This warning aside, Khan with BlueDot is optimistic.
“We are just beginning to scratch the surface as there are many ways that AI can play a key role in global health. As access to data increases in volume, variety and velocity, we will need analytical tools to make sense of these data. AI can play a really important role in augmenting human intelligence,” Khan says.
**Originally published in CBC News**
Two recent US initiatives: the New York Times’ rare disease column and a TBS series called Chasing the Cure are pointing to an emerging trend in the media: the idea that medicine can crowdsource ideas to diagnose difficult cases. But, can it be used to help diagnose patients, and what are the potential pitfalls?
Reaching a correct diagnosis is the crucial aspect of any consultation, but misdiagnosis is common, with some studies suggesting that medical diagnoses can be wrong, up to 43% according to some studies. This concern was the focus of a recent report by the World Health Organization. Individual doctors may overlook something, draw the wrong conclusion, or have their own cognitive biases which means they make the wrong diagnosis. And while hospital rounds, team meetings, and sharing cases with colleagues are ways in which clinicians try to guard against this, medicine could learn from the tech world by applying the principles of “network analysis” to help solve diagnostic dilemmas.
A recent study in JAMA Network Open applied the principle of collective intelligence to see whether combining physician and medical students’ diagnoses improved accuracy. The research, led by Michael Barnett, of the Harvard Chan School of Public Health, in collaboration with the Human Diagnosis Project, used a large data set from the Human Diagnosis Project to determine the accuracy of diagnosis according to level of training: staff physicians, trainees (residents and fellows), and medical students. First, participants were provided with a structured clinical case and were required to submit their differential diagnosis independently. Then the researchers gathered participants into groups of between two and nine to solve cases collectively.
The researchers found that at an individual level, trainees and staff physicians were similar in their diagnostic accuracy. But even though individual accuracy averaged only about 62.5%, it leaped to as high as 85.6% when doctors solved a diagnostic dilemma as a group. The larger the group, which was capped at nine, the more accurate the diagnosis.
The Human Diagnosis Project now incorporates elements of artificial intelligence, which aims to strengthen the impact of crowdsourcing. Several studies have found that when used appropriately, AI has the potential to improve diagnostic accuracy, particularly in fields like radiology and pathology, and there is emerging evidence when it comes to opthamology.
However, an issue with crowdsourcing and sharing patient data is that it’s unclear how securely patient data are stored and whether patient privacy is protected. This is an issue that comes up time and time again, along with how commercial companies may profit from third parties selling these data, even if presented in aggregate.
As such, while crowdsourcing may help reduce medical diagnostic error, sharing patient information widely, even with a medical group, raises important questions around patient consent and confidentiality.
The second issue involves the patient-physician relationship. So far it doesn’t appear that crowdsourcing has a negative impact in this regard. For instance, in one study over half of patients reported benefit from crowdsourcing difficult conditions, however very few studies have explored this particular issue. It’s entirely possible that patients may want to crowdsource management options for instance, and obtain advice that runs counter to their physicians’ and theoretically this could be a source of tension.
The last issue involves consent. A survey, presented at the Society of General Internal Medicine Annual Meeting in 2015, reported that 80% of patients surveyed consented to crowdsourcing, with 43% preferring verbal consent, and 26% preferring written consent (31% said no consent was needed). Some medico-legal recommendations, however, do outline the potential impact on physicians who crowdsource without the appropriate consent, in addition to the possible liabilities around participating in a crowdsourcing platform when their opinion ends up being incorrect. Clearly these are issues that have no clear answer: and we may end up in a position where patients are eager to crowdsource difficult-to-diagnose (and treat) sets of symptoms, but physicians exercise sensible caution.
It’s often said that medical information doubles every few months, and that time is only shortening. Collectively, there’s an enormous amount of medical knowledge and experience both locally and globally that barely gets tapped into when a new patient reaches our doors in any given hospital or clinic. Applying network intelligence to solving the most challenging, as well as the illusory “easy,” diagnosis, may give patients the best of both worlds: the benefit of their doctor’s empathetic care with the experience and intelligence of a collective many, but the potential downsides deserve attention as well.
**Originally published in the British Medical Journal**