Shining some light on the World Economic Forum's m-health foray

A week ago, I was none too pleased about the prospect of the World Economic Forum holding a mobile healthcare summit without media present, especially because representatives of the U.S. government would be present. I still don't much like that idea, but I can't accuse the WEF of trying to hide from me anymore.

This morning, I spoke by phone with Adrian Monck, WEF's Geneva, Switzerland-based head of media and communications, who said that most of the organization's meetings operate under the "Chatham House Rule." The rule's originator, the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London, aka Chatham House, explains: "When a meeting, or part thereof, is held under the Chatham House Rule, participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed."

Some plenary sessions at WEF's well-known annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, are open and on the record, but most other functions follow the Chatham House Rule. "The intention is not to run secret cabals with the goal of running the world," Monck says. "We're very modest in our ambitions."

The World Economic Forum doesn't produce action plans or similar documents, but rather serves to convene top minds in business, academia and government from around the world, according to Monck. "It's a little attempt at silo-busting" across the 75 industry councils the WEF convenes. The m-health summit, held Monday in La Jolla, Calif.--the brainchild of Dr. Paul Jacobs, CEO of San Diego-based telecommunications equipment-maker Qualcomm and chairman of the WEF Global Agenda Council on the Future of Mobile Communications--incorporates three such councils. Media actually belong to some WEF councils, but not the mobile or health panels, Monck says.

So who participated? According to a June 18 preliminary list of attendees that FierceMobileHealthcare obtained, the group included big business, entrepreneurs, not-for-profit organizations, universities and a few U.S. and foreign government agencies. Dell, AT&T, Alcatel-Lucent, Cisco Systems, Humana, the UCLA Wireless Health Institute, the West Wireless Health Institute, the American Red Cross, the Wireless-Life Sciences Alliance and the Inter-American Development Bank were to have had people there, among others.

The small, entrepreneurial companies were handpicked to attend. "These are the best-in-class companies," Clint McClellan, senior director of market development at Qualcomm, told me last week. In some circles, that phrase could be code for "we used the old boys' network," and I can see where that perception might come from. There are lots of great companies out there run by people who don't know a WEF member, so I wonder if the invitees truly represented the best of the best.

Out of respect for their privacy, I'm not going to name individuals from the private entities involved, but I believe the American taxpayers have a right to know which public officials participated in this closed-door event. According to my list, the Federal Communications Commission sent Phoebe Yang, senior advisor to the chairman and counsel for the National Broadband Plan; and Kerry McDermott, an expert advisor to the FCC's Broadband Task Force. Dr. Barbara Mittleman, director of the National Institutes of Health's Program on Public-Private Partnerships, was to attend as well. Also on the list was Dr. Kyu Rhe, chief public health officer of the Health Resources and Services Administration.

A request for more information from the FCC's National Broadband Plan office wasn't immediately answered.

So what did they discuss behind closed doors at the posh Estancia La Jolla Hotel & Spa? I'm not entirely sure at this point, but I suspect there was a lot of exploration of marrying monitoring devices, long battery life and cellular technology, based on my conversation last week with McClellan. "You'll start to see 3G [high-speed data transmission] embedded into medical devices," McClellan said.

The meeting, he explained, had an overarching goal. "It's about improving health and being on the same page," McClellan said. "I think it's a noble cause."

Fair enough. Just don't forget the little guy or gal who doesn't have the connections. There are some great ideas out there that will never make the WEF stage. - Neil