Author Archives: Al Shar

Pioneering Reflections

Jan 3, 2013, 12:53 PM, Posted by Al Shar

Al Shar B&W Al Shar

Before retiring, Al Shar, vice president and senior program officer, reflected on his time with Pioneer and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Along with a few others here, I’ve been on the Pioneer team since it began in 2003. What makes my case somewhat unique was that I didn’t have to be on the team. I had a “day job,” and no one asked or told me to join; I was there exclusively because I wanted to be. Looking back, what’s interesting about that is how little I, and others, understood about what Pioneer should be.

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Believing in Design: Return to Mayo Transform

Oct 4, 2012, 3:46 PM, Posted by Al Shar

Albert Shar / RWJF Al Shar

How can design affect health and the delivery of care? Last year I and a group of Pioneer's guests interested in Project ECHO went to Mayo Clinic’s Center for Innovation Transform Symposium without knowing much about the conference's focus of design and innovation in health. I entered as a skeptic but left a believer. This year, Pioneer brought no guests but we did provide funding so that a number of students in the design, pre-medical, and medical professions could attend.

What do I mean by design? You might think that design doesn’t have a place in delivering innovative health care. Design is predicated on understanding the way people and the environment react to how solutions are packaged and presented. This is critical in the acceptance and ultimate success of health care solutions, and successful outcomes are an essential health care goal.

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Gaining Perspectives on mHealth

Dec 21, 2011, 10:14 AM, Posted by Al Shar

In my recent blog post summarizing December’s mHealth Summit, I began by saying that the mHealth organizers must have been pleased with the conference, given its growth in attendance and engagement.

We were equally pleased with RWJF and Pioneer’s presence at the meeting – in fact, I’d say the meeting was a resounding success from our perspective.

Pioneer grantees Ben Sawyer and Debra Lieberman were both on panels featuring their work in health games and mobile technology. Deborah Estrin and Ida Sim announced the launch of Open mHealth, which is supported with funding from RWJF’s Pioneer Portfolio. And a session focused on this summer's mHealth Evidence meeting that was conceived of and co-sponsored by Pioneer.

Our Public Health Portfolio was also there looking for interesting perspectives on how mHealth could be deployed by public health departments to address a variety of health issues.

And finally, I was lucky enough to moderate a special session on a topic of keen interest to me and the portfolio.

“What I Really Need from mHealth: Five Perspectives on Value” featured a great cast of panelists including Robert Jarrin, senior director of Government Affairs for Qualcomm; Carol McCall, chief strategy officer at GNS Healthcare; Anmol Madan, founder of Ginger.io and visiting researcher at MIT Media Lab; and Richard Katz, director of cardiology at George Washington University Hospital.

Our session was structured around an imaginary mobile health application. The panelists discussed the value  of the application and how to demonstrate that value from the point of view of the individual, provider, various payers, regulators and researchers. This generated a fascinating conversation in which participants spoke from both a professional and personal perspective. Toward the end, we opened the discussion up to the attendees, which led to an informative and engaging discussion that will hopefully extend far beyond the session. The various perspectives are not completely aligned but yield something quite important when they do come together.

But wait, as they say on TV, there’s more! In addition to our panelists, we brought together about a dozen thought leaders, including representatives from organizations like NIH, Google, GNS Healthcare and the National Science Foundation, for a series of lively discussions about the future of mHealth and how to build value for all the players in the ecosystem. There was no lack of good ideas or strongly held opinions, and more questions were raised than answers offered. However, at the end of the night, we could all see light at the end of the tunnel. And that light came from a greater understanding of the value others saw in mHealth. From this newly fashioned broader vision, I’m hopeful we all left with a better sense of the way forward and with new ideas on how we could each play a role. 

I look forward to sharing more of what we learned and what this might mean for our investments in mHealth moving forward – and hearing your thoughts as well.

Reflections from mHealth Summit 2011

Dec 16, 2011, 10:49 AM, Posted by Al Shar

I'm sure that the organizers of this year's mHealth Summit were more than pleased. There were more than 3,600 people in attendance, up 1,200 from last year. The exhibit floor was larger and more complex, rivaling some trade shows. There were tracks for business, research, policy and technology along with a slew of special sessions and keynotes from Secretary of Health & Human Services Kathleen Sebelius and Surgeon General Regina Benjamin, among others. Some presentations soared with whiz-bang demos and promises of how technology will change the world; others bemoaned the complexity of interoperability, the "silo-ization" and the lack of demonstrated value.

While there is no question that mHealth is on the rise, some, including myself, are wondering if we’re heading toward a bubble of inflated expectations. As with all bubbles—dot com, housing etc.—the question isn’t whether there is significant underlying value (there is), but instead “how do we invest in the value that can be realized without buying into overinflated hype?” In the context of the ‘90s’ dot-com bubble, “How do we place our bets on Google and not on pets.com?”

The answer isn’t going to be found in the next jazzy consumer-oriented gadget, but by connecting great ideas that will help us lead happier, healthier lives over the long haul – connecting business, research, technology, and policy interests to find shared value.

I came away from the 2011 mHealth Summit optimistic in the overall potential of mHealth, but a little skeptical about the direction it seems to be heading in. Introducing multiple new and evolving health innovations is inherently complex, as is the perversity of our current health infrastructure. Yet one can’t help but notice that there are some very smart people working on developing the promise mHealth can offer to address some of our most pressing health challenges.

A central question will be how willing those from the “m” will be to ensure that the “health” is improved? And how open will the folks from “health” be in fulfilling the promise of “m” technology?

This will require us all to see value from others’ perspectives in this growing ecosystem. I’ll explore this more in my next blog post, so stay tuned.

In the meantime, take a moment to peruse RWJF’s coverage of the Summit on NewPublic Health.org, which tapped into some of the conversations, new collaborations and innovations in mobile health that might feasibly be applied to public health, and started a conversation about the potential for mobile technologies to help the public health field connect with hard-to-reach populations and bridge disparities.  Read what they learned in interviews with Susannah Fox of the Pew Internet and American Life Project about advances in mHealth, with Yvonne Hunt of the National Cancer Institute about the potential for mHealth in public health, and with Robert Kaplan, director of the Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences at the National Institutes of Health about the rigorous research still needed to support the field. We’d love to know what you think, so don’t forget to comment on each post or below to share your insights.

What Do We Really Need from mHealth?

Nov 29, 2011, 1:04 AM, Posted by Al Shar

The December 5-7 mHealth Summit is approaching and I’m pleased and excited to be moderating the special session: What I Really Need from mHealth: Five Perspectives on Value.

Pioneer has been involved with multiple aspects of mHealth since very early on and has seen interest grow into what sometimes seems to me to be an “irrational exuberance,” to borrow a phrase from Alan Greenspan. I’m concerned that we’re on the way to another bubble that’s in danger of bursting with unfortunate consequences. The fact is we often don’t know what “works,” and even what “working” means. And that’s why it’s so important that we discuss the different ways value needs to be demonstrated in mHealth.

This mHealth Summit panel will talk about value from the perspectives of the individual, the provider, the payer, the regulator and the researcher. These can be different, but from time to time they converge. Rather than having a number of separate presentations, experts will engage in discussion around a hypothetic but realistic scenario of a mobile health device and what’s needed to provide enough “value” for each to adopt, approve, purchase, share, fund and embrace this as a tool for better health. It is sure to be a lively and informative discussion.

I hope that you’ll be able to join us either in person in Washington, D.C. or electronically to help us shape the dialogue.

Follow the conference discussion through #mHS11, leave a comment below, or follow me on Twitter to join in the conversation.