Toward sustainability and equity
Sometimes the people most equipped to tackle the challenge of the moment are also the people who can astutely anticipate the challenges of the future. According to Healthcare Futurist Eric Meade, one such person was Dr. Jonas Salk, who both invented the polio vaccine and authored a forward-looking book entitled The Survival of The Wisest. At a recent Grant Thornton healthcare and life sciences forum, Meade used Salk’s insights in that book to challenge leaders to do something extraordinary — to help our species evolve to higher values.
Salk studied the course of the human population curve, which entered the inflection point in its S-curve in the late 20th century and is expected to level off within the next couple hundred years. Writing as a biologist, Salk suggested that the inflection point indicated an evolutionary change so profound that it would lead humans to adopt a new set of values.
With change, a new phase and new values
Salk identified the values of the first phase of human evolution, which lasted until around 1965, as survival and growth. Salk, writing in the early 1970s, could not yet name the values of the second phase. Meade, however, asserted that two values that will continue to rise in importance are sustainability and equity: “Sustainability is the value that allows us to live indefinitely within the constraints of our natural habitat. Equity is the value that allows us to live indefinitely alongside one another.”
These emerging values already influence the behavior of many actors, among them healthcare and life sciences companies. Meade cited the fact that while the U.S. eradicated smallpox in 1949, the disease was not eradicated worldwide until 1980, eight years after the vaccine was no longer even administered in the U.S. By contrast, he said, “We have vaccinated 3 billion people around the world against COVID-19 in a matter of months.”
Other moves toward equity include Medtronic’s decision to give away its ventilator design in the early days of the pandemic, and Merck’s decision to distribute its proprietary COVID-19 treatment on the United Nations patent pool.
While “equity” can be a hard concept to understand, Meade linked it to the business concept of “rationalization,” which simply means allocating resources in a way that makes sense. Just as rationalizing a business can reduce costs, improve customer service and strengthen a company’s competitive position, “rationalizing” healthcare resources within a society can reduce costs, improve patient experience and improve overall health, which are the three components of the “Triple Aim.”
The role for healthcare and life sciences leaders
Healthcare and life sciences organizations have an opportunity to inspire change and to apply their expertise to realize the value of equity. How can we better allocate resources to improve overall health, reduce disparities, improve quality of life and address costs? How can we work within our communities to avoid unnecessary duplication of equipment, to coordinate care and to achieve the proper mix of providers?
An important first step in achieving equity might be to determine the costs of inequity. As an example, Meade noted that there is currently no requirement to conduct auto safety tests using a dummy the size of an average female. Meanwhile, females are 17% more likely than males to die in crashes, and 73% more likely to be injured. To prompt thought, Meade asked, “How much are we spending on healthcare for females injured in cars not designed for their safety?”
Meade ended with hope for the future and a challenge for leaders: “If there’s one thing we’ve learned from COVID-19, it’s that one little variant, one little mutation can make a big difference, can change the game. It’s the variants and the mutations that really change things. You all have an invitation to become those variants.” Wryly, Meade urged leaders to “Be the variant you want to see in the world.”
Eric Meade is a futurist; an award-winning author; a principal of the Whole Mind Strategy Group, a consulting consortium; and past board chair of the World Future Society, the oldest and largest membership organization dedicated to the systematic study of the future.