Why Innovation Can Shape Health Care Just as Much as Politics

Aug 29, 2013 | Updated Oct 29, 2013

In 1965, when President Lyndon Johnson signed Medicare into law, our country's communication networks were still rather undeveloped. Given that in 2009, nearly 1 in 5 households lacked a telephone, enrolling participants in the new program was a technical and logistical challenge in 1965. Not to be deterred, President Johnson launched a major signup campaign, even sending teams of dogsled canvassers into the Alaskan tundra to ensure that every senior could access his or her benefits.

Fortunately, we live in a world which is profoundly more connected than the world of 1965. We have countless new ways to spread the word about our own era-defining health care legislation -- the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Unfortunately, we haven't even begun to tap those channels to their full capacity.

The ACA requires everyone to have health insurance, but according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, 2 in 5 Americans aren't even sure whether the ACA is law. In another recent survey, 57 percent said they didn't have enough information about the ACA to predict how it would change their health care. And for the people who most need a health care solution -- low-income individuals with no health insurance -- the situation is especially dire. More than two-thirds of these responded that they didn't have enough information.

To say the clock is ticking would be an understatement. Thirty million people are uninsured, and experts agree that the government's goal of quickly closing this gap is extremely lofty. Commentators are skeptical of the scope and adequacy of the efforts being employed to reach these people over the next few months. And rightly so: just last month, the "employer mandate" of the ACA was delayed. The health insurance marketplaces, which are a crucial feature of the ACA, are showing slow progress in many states, and there is speculation that these may be delayed as well.

Despite all of this, there is good news for patients. When we engage with the health care system, we no longer have to rely on the public sector. I believe we are seeing the blossoming of an exciting new era, where innovation, just as much as politics, can shape health care. The New Yorker recently made note of this shift in Silicon Valley, chronicling entrepreneurs' newfound interest in the political realm (an area which the tech world has historically avoided).

This movement is not limited to health care. The private sector has made great efforts to innovate, advance and supplement government initiatives in some of the most important areas.

In job creation, for instance, startups like Skillshare and oDesk have built on the concept of the "sharing economy." Instead of trying to wrestle traditional work arrangements out of stagnant industries, they are leveraging the untapped skills and resources of everyday people to create jobs and pump money back into the economy.

The example of education is even more dramatic. The higher-education system is broken and the total sum of unpaid student loans has reached an all-time high, at close to one trillion dollars. While heated conversations on student debt continue in Washington D.C., startups like Udacity are working to bring accessible, affordable and competitive higher education to the world.

Notice that this trend is not one of commercial interests undercutting or destabilizing public-sector efforts. Just the opposite is true, in fact. Challenges of this magnitude require close cooperation. We should all be pleased that the private sector is pulling its weight and pitting its best and brightest minds against them.

As I've argued before, health care is in a moment of crisis that transcends political opinion. Regardless of your feelings about the ACA, it is a fact that millions of new patients will soon enter the health care system. There simply will not be a comparable influx of new health care providers to meet this increased demand. Any reasonable person would expect this to strain our already-overtaxed system, further increasing wait times for basic health care.

What does it mean for us to put patients first in this situation? The major players in the health space must use their collective reach, knowledge and expertise to make patient engagement with the health care system more efficient and more effective.

The first step in engaging the uninsured and helping them get coverage is to increase awareness. That is one of the issues Enroll America is working toward, and one of the things my company is focusing on with the introduction of our Health Marketplace Resource.

Is this a complete solution? Of course not! It is, again, a first step -- and one which I'm honored to help the business community take. I believe that together we can empower and inform these newly-insured Americans to make smart health care decisions for themselves and their families -- no dogsleds necessary.

For more by Oliver Kharraz, M.D., click here.

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