What’s The Next Big Thing In Healthcare?

Sorry, docs, but don’t expect the dreaded electronic health record (EHR) to go away anytime soon. Or so bets Venrock’s Bryan Roberts, whose 20-year record as a healthcare venture capitalist has involved hearing some 25,000 pitches and shepherding nine portfolio companies with billion-plus dollar valuations.

“While all docs complain about their EHRs, as central repository for clinical information I think they’ll continue to exist for a longtime,” said Roberts, who was speaking at Fortune’s Brainstorm Health conference in Laguna Niguel, Calif. on Monday about “the next big thing” in health care. (Hint: an EHR replacement is not it.) “Whether they’ll improve their user interfaces or be disrupted out of that, I don’t know but the disruption is going to be hard.”

Not that the technology shouldn’t be disrupted. Roberts called the current system “sort of untenable”—with doctors spending much of their time with patients entering things into the EHR and even more time at night.

“You ought to be able to sit in a patient encounter and have my discussion and bring things out of the database that prompt me to ask you stuff,” he says. “You ought to be able to get in and out for that in real time.”

He gives the much hated, notoriously clunky medical technology another decade at least, and says, personally, rather than trying to disrupt the entrenched EHR, he’d bet on companies that take on “that last mile”—or helping medical professionals to more easily interact with such databases.

Jessica Mega, chief medical officer at Verily, Alphabet’s life sciences arm, added that the broader challenge will be for health care systems to figure out the infrastructure that will let physicians and medical professionals tap not just the data in their EHR, but also what is generated from new sources of data like genomic sequencing.

Roberts expects that some of the most exciting innovation in healthcare will incorporate seemingly more sophisticated technologies like voice recognition and machine learning. “They’re just pushing those capabilities so far, so fast.” That said, he added it takes at least a decade to build an interesting product or service that is truly disruptive.

Mega said Verily is also taking a long view, but expects that its Project Baseline, which involves collecting detailed health-related data from 10,000 study volunteers will produce some “new biology”—that is new insights into biology—in the next five years.

Should we be wary of hype? When asked about the recent and spectacular downfall of Theranos, the blood diagnostics unicorn whose founder Elizabeth Holmes was recently accused by the Securities and Exchange Commission of fraud, Roberts said he doesn’t think there will be another Theranos. He does say it gets tricky because start-ups are in the business or “selling forward.” There’s a mentality of “fake it till you make it,” but that becomes a problem if they never make it. He said the best guards against that are diligence and investing in people who are “truth-seeking.”

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