Recapping Fortune Brainstorm Health 2021

In pre-Covid life the annual Fortune Brainstorm Health conference was an unmissable event in my calendar, and while attending now is about pulling an all nighter on Hop-In rather than the fun of a quick trip to the west coast of the US and back, it’s still a must do.

The theme of this year’s event was Building Resilience – timely after the pandemic has exposed issues across the board of the consequences of a lack of resilience ranging from the technology systems used by businesses and their ability to support remote work models, the steady march of the past decades towards narrow and highly geo-specific supply chains, and of course the in particular the gaps in access and affordability of healthcare systems across the globe.

While there was an enormous of great content covered over the course of the 2 days (or nights if like me you were joining from the southern hemisphere), which you can access summaries of here on their website there were a number of themes that really jumped out to me.

Science has never been more important

While the early days of the pandemic saw a proliferation of wild projections made on everything from the duration and impact it would have to potential cures – bleach anyone? – it quickly became apparent to all bar the crazies that prioritising science and relying on real and factual data analysis and reporting was going to be key to the solution.

One of the most fascinating conversations across the conference for me was with Dr Albert Bourla, CEO of Pfizer who spoke candidly about the decision making process around the development of their vaccine, and the early decision to prioritise their scientists above anything else. This drove the rationale for not taking the government funding on offer as part of the US’s Operation WarpSpeed, as the feedback from their scientists was that accepting government funding inevitably introduced additional layers of bureaucracy. As a company Pfizer decided that protecting these valuable scientist resources from bureaucratic pain was going to be important as they were already going through enough pain with the speed of the vaccine effort, and walked away from the funding on offer.

He also spoke around the rationale for selecting Israel as one of the first partner countries for the vaccine roll out and the decision making behind that. Dr Bourla said it was clear that the global vaccine rollout was going to take an extended period of time, and that the world needed an illustration of vaccine efficacy to provide the hope to fuel the resilience required to reach that point. The selection criteria were that the partner needed to be a country of relatively small size, with a good medical system and electronic records used by 99% of the population, plus good experience in managing crisis. Israel fitted the bill, and it is telling that on March 11th, on the first anniversary of the declaration of the pandemic Israel reopened as a country after a successful national vaccination effort.

Daniel O’Day, CEO of Gilead spoke of a similar focus on prioritising their scientific workforce. Remdesivir, which is now administered to 1 in every 2 patients hospitalised for Covid in the US, started its development a decade ago via a long reaching view of the need for an antiviral agent of this type. It typically takes a year to produce, but after seeing how rapidly Covid-19 was spreading in China the company made the decision to ramp supply just in case it went global, and the concerted efforts of their scientific and logistics teams halved production time to 6 months and undoubtedly saved many lives as a consequence. Not all of the companies efforts could be focused on Remdesivir though, with 3 in 4 HIV patients globally receiving a Gilead produced therapeutic agent it was crucial those supplies were maintained to avoid triggering another health crisis.

With the arrival of safe and effective vaccines in market, the big scientific focus now is two fold – the development of ‘booster’ vaccines to address the emerging new variants, and addressing the vaccine hesitancy that is hampering uptake. As Dr Marc Harrison, President and CEO of Intermountain Healthcare said ‘It doesn’t help to shame, it doesn’t help to belittle’ when dealing with reluctance to take up the vaccine, instead ‘we need to be relentless in our communication and in sharing the science’.

Collaboration unlocks Possibility

The benefit and importance of collaboration in dealing with the challenges of the pandemic was evident across the board, whether that be inter-company collaboration in the case of Pfizer, where the scientific development of the vaccine was running hand in hand with the development from scratch of the logistics solution required to not only distribute but manage and monitor the extreme storage conditions necessary for it to be safe and effective.

Without exception all of the pharma and healthcare CEOs and leaders who spoke over the two days spoke of the unprecedented level of collaboration that the pandemic had provoked, with competition being put to one side in favour of sharing the lessons learned to ensure the greatest benefit possible was achieved. Interestingly many referenced a belief that this collaborative approach would continue post-pandemic as they had really seen value in the relationships formed, so it will be interesting to see if this plays out or if old behaviours resume once the crisis passes.

While the pandemic has highlighted the disparity of access to healthcare across the global, it has also illustrated that for the world to recover no country or region can be left behind. COVAX is the vaccines pillar of the Access to Covid-19 Tools (ACT) accelerator, part of the collaboration between WHO, UNICEF and Gavi amongst others, and was created to accelerate the development of vaccines and ensure that access was equitable across the world. To date COVAX has shipped over 49 million vaccines to 121 participants, although the current crisis unfolding in India shows that there is still an enormous body of work to be done in global vaccine distribution and administration.

Real Time Intervention is Key

Whether it be the interventions and support required to manage the effects of Covid-19 itself or the consequences of the pandemic, it was universally acknowledged that they must be available in real time and that technology is key to making that happen.

Telehealth has been one of the staples in ensuring the continued delivery of healthcare during this time of restricted access to physical health facilities, but it’s just one of the illustrations of the important role technology is going to play in dealing with the consequences of the immediate impact and beyond. Vinod Khosla, tech investor and founder of Khosla Ventures, spoke of the two fold component of healthcare delivery, the human element of care and the scalable expertise which AI systems can deliver. Solving the issue of access to primary care can only be delivered by making healthcare cheaper in the order of 10x, and this can only be done by the deployment of technology.

Robert Bradway, Chairman and CEO of Amgen, and former FDA Commissioner Dr Margaret Hamburg spoke about the secondary crisis in chronic non-communicable diseases which has the potential to be greater in size and severity than the pandemic itself. Screenings have been missed and surgeries have been postponed, and with the healthcare system so overstretched by the pandemic, fatigued healthcare workers are not going to find it easy to gear up and deal with this upcoming wave of need. Their belief, and one I wholeheartedly agree with, is that the only way to stem the tide is to move from ‘fixing the broken’ to ‘predict and prevent’, and again the effective deployment of technology driven products and solutions is the key. As Dr Gianrico Farrugia, President and CEO of the Mayo Clinic said ‘Covid has given healthcare organisations the confidence that they can tolerate significant change’, and the time for that change is now.

Even the ultimate love/hate tool of the pandemic in Zoom is looking at incorporating real time interventions to deal with the very real phenomonen of Zoom fatigue, with the announcement of an upcoming wider roll out of the partnership with Arianna Huffington’s Thrive Global which will see 60 second resets embedded into calls.

Resilient Companies prioritise Physical and Mental Health

The key to resilience is looking after your own health and the health of those around you, both mental and physical, and that doesn’t just hold true from a personal perspective but is also key to building resilient companies and businesses.

I loved this US Army definition of leadership shared by Lt Gen Nadja West – ‘leadership is the process of influencing people by providing purpose, direction and motivation to accomplish the mission and improve the organisation’.

The pandemic has caused business leaders to face one of, if not the biggest, singular challenge they are ever likely to see in their careers. Entire business models have been disrupted virtually overnight, and team members have not only had to face a seismic shift in their way of working and in many cases their income security, while also dealing with a real and tangible threat to the health of themselves, their loved ones and their communities.

The way in which business leaders have responded to this unprecedented crisis has been heralded by a focus on safety first, the importance of an identifiable purpose, and in being creative in the support that is provided for employee’s both physical and mental health.

Robert Ford, CEO of Abbott reminded us that supporting resilience isn’t just about the provision of physical resources, its about the creation and support of the mindset that breeds resilience, and that can only be achieved in the workplace by linking to the purpose of the organisation. Oscar Munoz, CEO of United Airlines said one of the ways they had been able to assist their workforce in dealing with the stresses of managing travel in a post pandemic world was by reminding them that every single person on a plane now more than ever is there for a reason that is important to them.

He was also responsible for one of my favorite take aways on how to manage the stress of a crisis as big and significant as this one has been and continues to be – find the thing that lets you take the pressure out of your day and practice that each and every day. It might be meditation, it might be exercising, it might be a giant belly laugh – the important thing is identifying it and prioritising it.

There was far too much fascinating content to cover everything here, and if you’re interested in exploring further either head to the Fortune website or read back through the #FortuneHealth hashtag on Twitter which also contains lots of great summaries.

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