Reporter's Notebook: Boston healthcare forum tackles Affordable Care Act, product innovation

Healthcare experts from around the globe last week tackled issues confronting the industry, including the Affordable Care Act, product innovation and challenges lower-income countries face as they develop healthcare systems.

The Economist's Health Care Forum 2014 conference in Boston brought together healthcare leaders to discuss hot button topics, such as price transparency and the future of healthcare. And though they didn't resolve the big issues, some of the topics--such as whether healthcare reform is a success or a failure--generated considerable debate.

Healthcare reform face-off

One of the most  lively discussion was an Oxford-style debate about the ACA between Donald Bialek, M.D., chief medical officer at iVantage Health Analytics, and Jonathan Bush, CEO of Watertown-based Athenahealth and cousin of former President George W. Bush.

Bialek took on the position that the ACA hasn't failed. The problem, he said, is the U.S. healthcare system was always dysfunctional. The ACA simply "provides more access to that dysfunctional system," he said.

But it also eliminated coverage barriers for people with preexisting conditions and created subsidies to help low-income Americans pay for insurance.

Bush, however, argued that the law hinders change and individual freedoms, forcing people to pay for healthcare coverage they may not want. The result, he said, is that costs will continue to rise until the economy can no longer support healthcare expenses.

Healthcare at a turning point

The conference kicked off with a discussion about the challenges low-income countries face in delivering healthcare and the work many U.S.-based companies do to meet that demand, such as constructing acute-care facilities.

Panelist Peter Berman, a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, said one of the biggest challenges is how those governments handle larger populations with greater needs, rising expectations and inadequate resources. The Ebola outbreak in many of those countries will exacerbate the problem. "Aside from the human costs," he said, "what are the economic impacts of this?"

Victor Dzau, president and chief executive of The Institute of Medicine, said private entrepreneurs must drive innovation because the government can't meet the need of people in countries like Asia and China. . "But innovators are going to come in with low-cost solutions that are closer to the patients," he said.

Product innovation

Compared to other industries, healthcare is slow to adopt technology, according to Chris Gordon, managing director at investment firm Bain Capital. Now that the United States finally has a system in place via electronic health records to share information, he said big companies can help bridge the gap to provide meaningful results with the data.

Within the next 10 years, panelists said the industry will see tremendous changes as a result of data-driven outcomes. "There will be a radical transformation that in many ways we can't imagine yet," said Unity Stoakes, president and co-founder of StartUp Health. He said that consumers will drive this innovation, and health and wellness will be integrated around every aspect of our lives.