The digital transformation of healthcare. Keeping the dream alive.

Dr. Bertrand Picard BallonnistIt was late September in 2007. I was in Nottwil, Switzerland to deliver the opening keynote at a one-day conference on digital health. Also on the agenda that day to provide the closing keynote was a physician and psychiatrist named Dr. Bertrand Piccard (sitting to my left in the photo). Although Dr. Piccard hadn’t been invited to talk about digital health, I must say I was inspired by the man, what he had to share, and by our conversations that day. 

Dr. Piccard may or may not be a name you immediately recognize, although he is a national hero in his homeland. In fact, not only is Dr. Bertrand a hero, but so too are his grandfather and father who, like him, were famed balloonists and undersea explorers. If there is a genetic basis for adventure, this family surely has it.

Bertrand Piccard is perhaps best known for piloting the Breitling Orbiter 3 in a 1999 bid to travel around the world in a high-altitude balloon. However, it was another adventure Dr. Piccard spoke about that day at the digital health event in 2007 that captured my imagination. It was an adventure that would take him another 8 years to see, and is now responsible for putting his name back in the news.

imageDr. Piccard and fellow pilot adventurist, André Borschberg, are taking turns at the controls a craft called Solar Impulse 2. Their quest is to circumnavigate the earth in an aircraft powered only by the sun. The pair started their journey last month in Abu Dhabi and have now completed 6 legs of what will be a 12-leg journey. What is likely to be the most challenging and longest leg of the trip begins in the next few days when pilot Borschberg will travel in Solar Impulse 2 from Nanjing, China, to Honolulu. Once there, Dr. Piccard will pilot the craft on its 7th leg of the trip over the Pacific Ocean to Phoenix, Arizona. You can get up to date on the adventure by reading an excellent article that was posted on Wired today and also by visiting Dr. Piccard’s website.

So why am I writing about this on HealthBlog? What does a quest to travel around the world in a solar powered plane have to do with our mission to transform health and healthcare delivery with digital technology? I believe we can learn valuable lessons from adventurists like Dr. Bertrand Piccard. Developing a solar powered plane to circumnavigate the world or for that matter, a vehicle that will take humankind to Mars, are projects of immense complexity. Such projects take a lot of money, patience and especially a lot of time. For those of us who’ve been struggling for what seems like an eternity to modernize and digitize our healthcare system, we should take note of the men and women throughout history who’ve had a big dream, and never lost sight of it even when the people around them said it was impossible.

imageIn a 2007 HealthBlog post about meeting Dr. Piccard and spending the day with him at the conference in Nottwil, I complimented the Swiss for their no-nonsense approach to health IT, and for that matter, their excellent healthcare delivery system. I wrote:

As I met with healthcare providers during my trip to Switzerland, I was struck by the notion that the Swiss Army Knife was perhaps a good analogy for the approach the Swiss are taking in healthcare IT. They had little interest in the monolithic, inflexible solutions being offered by most vendors. Instead, they favored open standard, home-grown or best of breed departmental solutions orchestrated by means of a web services architecture. They also favored using lower-cost, commodity software solutions wherever possible. In other words, they pretty much reflected my own thinking and the values we evangelize at Microsoft.  

Today, web services architecture is being superseded by the cloud, which I believe has even greater potential to transform health IT and help healthcare providers improve care quality and access for patients while lowering costs. Although all of us would like to see the pace of transformation pick up, I am reminded how important it is not to lose sight of the goal no matter how long it takes.

It has taken a dozen years for Dr. Piccard and his team to build a solar powered plane that can travel around the world. Even now, the successful completion of the voyage is far from certain. But I know that even if Solar Impulse 2 doesn’t make the goal, a team will someday, somewhere complete the mission. So too must we view the digital transformation of healthcare.

Bill Crounse, MD Senior Director, Worldwide Health Microsoft

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