Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s Heartening Speech at CHIME18 Should Inspire U.S. Healthcare Leaders

Nov. 29, 2018
Perhaps we can use the story of the Tsimane tribe to push ourselves to develop a greater understanding of why we spend so much money on healthcare and don’t have the results to show for it.

It was inspiring to hear Sanjay Gupta, M.D., the well-known neurosurgeon and medical reporter, give the closing keynote at the College of Healthcare Information Management Executives (CHIME) 2018 Fall CIO Forum in San Diego last week. Dr. Gupta, who serves as associate chief of the neurosurgery service at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta, while also best known as CNN's multiple Emmy Award-winning chief medical correspondent, discussed the fascinating balance that he strikes between medicine and media.

“Oftentimes, I see people at their best, and sometimes at their worst. I get to travel the world, where I learn so much, but also teach others. Sometimes the dance between medicine and media can be awkward and emotionally challenging. But almost always, the stories we do have a significant impact,” Gupta told the Fall CIO Forum attendees.

What was perhaps most captivating about Gupta’s speech was when he spoke about visiting a primitive Amazonian tribe that appears to have the best heart health in the world. The Tsimane people of Bolivia do not speak a language, live a simple existence, and are disease-free, explained Gupta. So he went to visit the tribe with the goal to understand its lifestyle and what led to its members having such healthy hearts. 

“I went spearfishing with one [tribe member], who thought he was 84-years-old, but he really didn’t know for sure. His shirt was off, and he was ripped, balancing himself on the canoe, just looking at the water, spearing fish. His eyesight was perfect. The entire indigenous tribe was just like this,” Gupta recalled.

After examining the Tsimane tribe’s diet, Gupta noted it was a hunter-gatherer society, meaning there was nothing technological. “The most mechanical thing I saw was a pulley for the well,” he said. Seventy percent of what they eat is carbohydrates—unrefined and unprocessed—while 15 percent of their diet is protein, and 15 percent fat, he added. “You need farmed food because oftentimes you don’t have successful hunting days, so the farmed food was the food in the bank. And they would do intermitting fasting, too. These are the people with the healthiest hearts in the world,” Gupta exclaimed.

When it comes to activity, when hunters are hunting, they’re never outrunning their prey, but rather outlasting it, noted Gupta. “We found that they walked about 17,000 steps per day. But they didn’t run; they only walked. They are active, but not intensively active. They also hardly every sit—they are either lying or standing all the time. And they would get nine hours of sleep per night, waking up to the rooster’s crow. There are no devices. Again, these are the people who have the healthiest hearts in world. They don’t have a healthcare system and don’t spend a dollar on healthcare,” Gupta stated.

What’s even more interesting about this tribe is that each of its members lives with some degree of a parasitic infection, which they usually get it early in life, have a few days of illness, and then just live with these parasites in their bodies for their entire lives. “The belief is that so much of the disease we talk about—that leads to this $3.3 trillion price tag [the total cost of U.S. healthcare spending in 2016]—is actually ignited or worsened by our immune systems. So the parasitic infections could be part of the reason they are protected from all types of diseases,” Gupta offered.

Essentially, it’s living this basic, undeveloped life that “inadvertently provides them extraordinary protection against heart disease,” noted a report in HealthDay last year. “Thanks to their unique lifestyle, most Tsimane [members] have arteries unclogged by the cholesterol plaques that drastically increase the risk of heart attack and stroke in modern Americans,” Gregory Thomas, M.D., medical director of the Memorial Care Heart & Vascular Institute at Long Beach Memorial, in California, said in that report.

You might be asking what the story of the Tsimane tribe has to do with U.S. healthcare since its lifestyle would obviously never be replicated in a developed country. And while that is true, it’s tough to ignore the $1 billion per day that our healthcare system spends on heart disease—compared to the Tsimane tribe that doesn’t spend a single dime, yet has the healthiest hearts in the world.

In this sense, perhaps we can use the Tsimane story to push ourselves to develop a greater understanding of why we spend so much money on healthcare and don’t have the results to show for it. Gupta asked this $3.3 trillion-dollar question in his speech—why does healthcare in the U.S. cost so much and what do we get in return?

“If you look at the statistics, it’s not impressive. More people die from preventable disease in the U.S. than in 12 other nations. People live longer in 30 other countries compared to the U.S.—including places like Chile and Costa Rica. We still have tens of millions of people who don’t have access, and we still spend all this money on healthcare. Why?” he asked.

Gupta explained that the nation’s high healthcare costs come down to the following: high administrative costs, technology, new drugs and development, and the cost of chronic disease—the last which is incredibly self-inflicted. About 70 to 80 percent of chronic disease is self-preventable, he said.

Indeed, as most of us know, about 5 percent of the U.S. population accounts for 50 percent of the healthcare costs. These are folks who are defined by illness, not by health, Gupta stated. This is why the modern-day healthcare system has proactively taken to targeting that 5 percent to improve their chances of preventing disease and staying healthy. “Data shows that home visits, nutritional counseling, one-on-one coaching, and diligent follow-up care can go a long way in preventing someone from getting sick in the first place, and from turning a disease into something more chronic. Some of these interventions can actually reverse disease. The die is not cast,” Gupta said.

For me, Gupta’s keynote highlighted the need for efforts around value-based care, care management, and population health to be intensified. A big part of that, as noted in the speech, is addressing patients’ social and environmental factors. It’s not at all surprising to see studies such as this one from earlier this year, conducted by researchers at the University of South Florida (USF) College of Public Health, Tampa, and WellCare Health Plans, and published in Population Health Management, which found that healthcare spending is substantially reduced when people are successfully connected to social services that address social barriers, or social determinants of health, such as secure housing, medical transportation, healthy food programs, and utility and financial assistance.

And with that, there is also an enormous opportunity for data and IT to play a role. Information sharing, so that providers have access to the right information at the point of care—no matter where the patient is—will be critical to reducing unnecessary costs. As will the robust use of data analytics, so that patient care organizations can be proactive in predicting which patients are at highest risk, when they might need services, and how to intervene at the appropriate time.

But to this point, Gupta, who noted that our society can get too caught up in high-tech, also suggested that “medicine seems to play by slightly different rules when it comes to innovation as opposed to other sectors. Sometimes, innovation moves painstakingly slow in respect to medicine.” At the end of the day, he said, it will be “the innovations that make us, [as a society], healthier, happier, and connect us in frictionless ways, that will be the biggest winners.”

So, will the U.S. population suddenly turn off their iPhone alarms, wake up to the rooster’s crow, and become a hunter-gatherer society? No, I would say that’s quite unlikely to happen. But hearing stories such as the one of the Tsimane tribe might just serve as good enough motivation to bring down the astronomical and unsustainable costs of U.S. healthcare.

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