As AHIP’s Annual Institute Opens, Author Walter Isaacson Shares His Perspectives on Innovation

June 23, 2021
At the AHIP Annual Institute, the annual conference of the nation’s largest health plan association, being held virtually, AHIP CEO Matt Eyles delved into the topic of innovation with renowned author Walter Isaacson

The opening session of the annual conference of the Washington, D.C.-based AHIP (America’s Health Insurance Plans), which was held virtually this year, featured a dialogue between AHIP president and CEO Matt Eyles and Walter Isaacson, the renowned American author, journalist, and professor. Eyles and Isaacson discussed a wide range of topics in their online dialogue, which was the opening session of the AHIP Institute, including a discussion of Isaacson’s new book, published this March, The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race, described on the book’s website by its publisher, Simon & Schuster, as “a gripping account of how Nobel Prize winner Jennifer Doudna and her colleagues launched a revolution that will allow us to cure diseases, fend off viruses, and have healthier babies.”

Before introducing Isaacson, Eyles shared some opening remarks, which focused on AHIP’s commitment to helping to improve the health status of Americans nationwide. “Health insurance providers are taking the lessons learned to make sustainable improvements to healthcare,” he said. “AHIP is leading the way, advocating for legislation and new rules to make it easier for patents to use telehealth—and supporting permanent solutions to provide for affordability” of healthcare, “and to give patients more access to their personal health information.” He touted AHIP’s advocacy on behalf of healthcare consumers, and the association’s commitment to being more than just payers. “Over the last decade, healthcare providers have transformed their businesses,” he said, focusing on the care management and provider collaboration aspect of AHIP’s activities. Health plans have been building “robust networks of high-value, high-quality networks of providers. They are care managers… partnering with providers. They are leaders in technology, leveraging the best in technology to support care management. They are data wizards… working on new solutions. Health plans today are champions of care. And earlier this month, AHIP launched a refreshed brand. Our commitment to improving healthcare for every American. AHIP is guiding greater health,” he said.

After making those introductory remarks, Eyles introduced Walter Isaacson, who has won renown as an author, scholar, educator, and thought-leader. A professor at Tulane University, Isaacson has written several well-received books, the most recent one of which is his new book on Jennier Doudna. Previous books have included Leonardo da Vinci (2017), The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution (2014), Steve Jobs (2011), Einstein: His Life and Universe (2007), Benjamin Franklin: An American Life (2003), and Kissinger: A Biography (1992). Born in New Orleans in 1952, Isaacson has pursued a number of different professional activities besides writing and teaching, among them, serving as vice chair of the Louisiana Recovery Authority, which oversaw the rebuilding of the city after it was devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

“You’ve written a great deal about innovation in your career, Walter,” Eyles said. “When you think of the concept of innovation, what comes to mind?”

“Being with TIME Inc., the Aspen Institute, etc., I’ve gotten to interact with a whole lot of smart people,” Isaacson said. “And you know what? Being smart doesn’t matter a lot; smart people are a dime a dozen. What matters is creativity and innovation…. mRNA vaccine development is an example. These types of innovations are really going to change things. We’ve had the physics revolution of the first half of the 20th century, the digital revolution of the second half of the 20th century, and now, the first half of the 21st century is about innovation in healthcare.”

“And in that regard, what comes to mind when you think of the concept of leadership?” Eyles asked.

“I think it begins with basic curiosity: DaVinci in his notebooks, asking, why the sky is blue?” Isaacson replied. “Or Einstein wondering about the nature of the universe. Take CRISPR”—the CRISPR genetic engineering technique—"the genome editing tool—it began with a group of scientists trying to figure out why bacteria have clustered, repeated sequences in their genetics? Pure curiosity can lead to great translational research and discoveries. And one of the good things about that trait is that we can all be more curious. We’re not all going to be Einsteins, but we can be creative.”

“Do you think the science and technology are moving faster now?” Eyles asked. “Yes, I think you’re seeing the confluence of two fast-moving revolutions,” Isaacson said. “The digital revolution is being driven by Moore’s law, which is doubling the speed of chip development, for example. And the sequencing of the genome—now, with CRISPR and other gene-editing tools and other technologies, you’re seeing all that connect to computational biology, which is harnessing data. So you’re seeing incredibly fast-moving innovations in healthcare and in related technologies.”

“Share a little bit about your hometown and upbringing and how that might have fueled curiosity?” Eyles asked. “I grew up right in the middle of New Orleans, in the French Quarter,” Isaacson said. “And what’s wonderful is the amazing diversity of people—the French, Spanish, slaves, freed slaves, Jews, immigrants, all together. For instance, in the late 1890s, people coming together in New Orleans, freed slaves, immigrants—all that led to Louis Armstrong, who was able to obtain a cornet—and he was hearing the sounds of the Frech opera house and the early sounds that became jazz. And in places of great diversity, you often find great creativity—whether in the Florence of the Renaissance or Philadelphia in the 1770s, or New Orleans in the early years of jazz.”

“Sticking to this theme of diversity and inclusiveness, which has been so important during this pandemic time, as we focus on building a more inclusive society, how do we do that when the nation is so deeply polarized now?” Eyles asked.

“A lot of the nation is deeply polarized, from society to the way politics is working; however, if you go out in the country, most people aren’t deeply polarized,” Isaacson responded. “We go about our lives and figure out how to making progress in our areas. And cities like Nashville, New Orleans, Cleveland, Columbus, Austin, you find a hunger for bringing this country back together. At the moment, the politicians are playing to our basest instincts, but they’ll shift eventually. Einstein saw what was happening here with McCarthyism in the 1950s, and it reminded him of Europe in the 1930s. but eventually, McCarthyism faded.”

“How do you think some people you’ve written about throughout history would think about the vaccine, and its acceptance by some and rejection by others?” Eyles asked. “You’re right, some people are rejecting it,” Isaacson said. “I think you’ll find that approximately 70 percent of this country is afraid of vaccines and resistant. When inoculation first came in, people were suspicious. But if you’re open and transparent about things, people understand it better. When they’re unintimidated and know the narrative of the story, they’re not going to think it’s some kind of conspiracy to put microchips inside their bodies. And the vaccines are so effective. And we’re seeing the vaccines knock down tremendously the number of COVID cases, and I think you’ll see that 70 percent of vaccinated adults go up to 80 percent. And yes, we have fringes, and because we’re such a diverse society, we have to tolerate those fringes.”

“In your view, what role do the arts and sciences play in this?” Eyles asked. “When I interviewed Steve Jobs, he said that his role was to stand at the interaction of the arts and technology,” Isaacson said. “That’s why he studied calligraphy and music and dance in college; and that’s why he created the technology he did, that was so human. Another example was Leonardo Da Vinci and his Vitruvian Man; Da Vinci loved zoology and engineering and everything. So I tell my students, be interested in everything; keep your eye on everything, and see the patterns.”

“You just mentioned Jennifer Doudna,” Eyles said. “What do you think people will take away from this book?”

“The beauty of creativity and the joy of understanding things,” Isaacson said. “And the importance of basic research. And the importance of turning basic curiosity into applied science, into innovations and discoveries that can affect our lives…. I want people to become less afraid of science; and also to understand the moral decisions we’ll face at the point when we can design our children. That will be a Brave new World, to use Aldous Huxley’s phrase. So I want people to see the beauty of science but also the perils that could come with unregulated use of gene editing.”

Eyles said, “As we think about COVID-19 and the impact it’s had on American society, I reflect on the fact that I was born in the 60s, my father-in-law was born in 1931 and is 91. He was impacted by the depression. I have kids who are 20 and 18. How will the pandemic impact future generations?”

“I look at the young kids who have been wearing masks, the 4- and 5-year-olds; they won’t remember never having worn masks first,” Isaacson said. “I think we’ll have a hunger for in-person collaboration. Zoom meetings are good when you have a very specific agenda, but they’re not good when you need to blue-skying things. Whenever Steve Jobs designed things for Pixar or Apple, he designed spaces that required people to bump into each other. And so it’s taught us the benefit of those things we should be able to do in person.”

“I’ve heard you express optimism about the future,” Eyles said. “What gives you concern, confidence about our country’s future?”

“I think our politics has become too polarized, unfortunately,” Isaacson said. “If you’re on social media, in Washington, and in some state legislatures, we’ve become very knee-jerk and too polarized, and the two major parties have cleaved along ideological lines. You used to be able to find liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats, and so you could find an Everett Dirksen and a Lyndon Johnson who could negotiate. Now, this week, we’re voting on voting rights issues, and it’s become very knee-jerk along party lines. I think gerrymandering is one cause, and another is social media, with its algorithms. In my day, we had general-interest magazines that tried to talk to all sides. Now, if you want to be part of the media, you have to go after very partisan audiences; all of that is polarizing us. But around the country, you’re seeing big cradles of creativity. In the 1970s, it was Silicon Valley; now, that’s decentralizing, to places like Chattanooga, Tennessee, or Columbus, Ohio. I think that the decentralization of innovation will be stabilizing for the nation, as we go into a new period in which we see combinations of computers, engineering, and biotech. That will reinforce our confidence in science; it will make us less contemptuous of science; and it will make our politics a little bit less contentious, as people let the evidence shape our theories, instead of our theories shaping the evidence.”

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