Tag Archives: Psychology

Small might be smarter, think hive mind for innovation

Healthcare systems are often seen as requiring an economy of scale. This in part is a function of how prevalent diseases are, such that in some small countries they would have one case in 2 years, rather than one case per million of population. Healthcare technologies can be incredibly pricey; for instance, a proton therapy facility will run between €100 and €200 million to set up. Healthcare buildings and research infrastructure are expensive to build and run. Health professionals can be expensive to train and employ and are generally globally mobile.

Associated with investment in healthcare within the EU, we find that almost every region or member state has life sciences, in some form, in their top 5 or so areas of national priority. Life sciences is challenging and demanding, and requires high degrees of global visibility and connectivity to other researchers. Commercialisation of life sciences in Europe is not great; the EU’s research budget does not strictly speaking focus on research translation and there is precious little to help good ideas bridge the ‘valley of death’ where unfunded good ideas go to die. Financing for life sciences developments consume vast quantities of risk capital, some of which will be unlikely to return any value for a decade or more. The problem is not for the EU, but for the risk appetite in member states: it is difficult to raise more than €30 million or so in venture funding in Europe. The brooding presence of state interference in entrepreneurial start-ups can be discouraging. And with the UK leaving the EU, a liberal enterprising culture will be lost within the EU. Statist solutions in Europe tend to dominate.

Many EU countries try to avoid downside risks of failure by punishing it, rather than creating opportunities to learn. Countries that encourage risk taking, and make it easy to start and close down companies, with associated flexible labour practices, will outstrip protectionist fearful countries. Many countries protect jobs not workers, so actually create unemployment and discourage job creation. Life sciences is one such area that requires particular flexibility owing to the nature of the work.

Small countries are particularly interesting. In one of the EU’s small states, there has been active progress developing a bioscience research and commercialisation centre (partly funded by the EU, thanks for that). Higher education is active across life sciences, though the research is of middling status globally, but that is typical of most of Europe’s universities. The country has a well-developed and well-financed healthcare system, recognised as one of the best globally based on outcomes.

Building life science (or any research-based commercial capacity for that matter) means that setting priorities is more important the smaller you are, as you can’t do everything. That means grappling with disappointment as not everything can be done, and if trying to do everything, mediocrity abounds. It means, too, that infrastructure projects are precious, as they are enablers of future potential — the longer term vision must be sustainable, as getting it wrong can be expensive — research buildings don’t make very good hotels and what do you do with failing science parks like we see across Europe.

What Cognology says.

  • build on what you already are doing well as that is evidence you have the expertise, networks and working practices in place
  • keep in mind that life sciences is much, much more than drugs; progress may be quicker in other areas, such as informatics, telecommunications, bio-engineering, materials science, agricultural biotech, etc.
  • you can’t sensibly do life sciences with a weak university, so this entails difficult and hard rethinking of priorities and a sensible review of research productivity
  • you can’t sensibly do life sciences without a teaching hospital; the academic health science centres in the US account for over 80% of productive life sciences research, so the infrastructure should enable closer collaborations and alignment between university and hospital and industry; this may, by the way, raise real issues for government if the teaching hospital(s) is state run and therefore subject to bureaucratic overhang
  • you can’t sensibly do life sciences without understanding the logic of ‘bench to bedside’; productive work lies in translational research and solving clinical problems; this can challenge academics whose careers are rewarded from the production of papers and volume of research funding rather than solving problems; in life sciences, solving problems is paramount; understand what the Grand Challenges in life sciences are and see which one(s) you can focus on and ignore the rest
  • you’ll need to consider the economic developments that come with building a life sciences sector to energise high net worth individuals in the country to develop a risk appetite for national investments along with a cadre of managerial expertise to take start-ups forward; I’d discourage doing this through the public sector hiring as it disincentivises university graduates from pursuing entrepreneurial careers (there is good global evidence that this can be a problem, so don’t make that mistake); best role for government is ensuring a flexible corporate start-up environment, a non-punitive bankruptcy regime, sensible taxation of start-ups, and seed funding; it might also be a good idea to give away all that publicly owned intellectual property
  • finally, the good news is that size doesn’t matter for innovation; there is no correlation between the size of a country and the ability of the country to innovate; many very large countries have clumsy policies that disincentivise and frustrate; the EU is full of them and in the main, the governments have assumed the wrong type of highly interventionist policies rather than creating an enabling culture that does not punish failures and really does reward success.

Thinking like a virus

Ebola  is really quite a horrible little bit of DNA. Its route to humans is via the fruit bat and between humans through body fluids. So much for the public health model.

The virus is taking advantage of humans with poor lifestyle, illiteracy, folk medicine, weak healthcare systems and lack of awareness. If it is true a 2 year old is person zero, how did that come to be? The public health model wants to find the person, but what we really need to understand are the conditions for zero to become infected. That means mapping the ecology within which the virus operates.

Outbreaks, epidemics, pandemics should be understood as an ecology combining information, biological and social strands which track the infection production process.

We’re in the middle in the countries at risk of the Ebola outbreak, and at the beginning everywhere else (even a case or two does not a crisis make). Nigeria may now be coming out the other end. The key is to build into our response an anticipatory and first response capacity throughout.

The real test of how these three countries will emerge from the Ebola crisis depends on what they are now putting in place for the Post-infection phase. Typically, events such as these emerge, get dealt with quite quickly (as in the case of other Ebola outbreaks), but building in anticipatory and response capacity is not a resulting priority. Better organised healthcare systems will handle situations like this better.

The three at-risk countries have weak governance, score low on Transparency International’s corruption scale, and low on WHO’s Human Development Scale, all characteristics of failing states.  It is not inconceivable that these countries could collapse; the historical record shows that other civilisations have collapsed from disease.

Since weak healthcare systems are contributive to the problem, improving access to care and reducing the cash component would require improving the economic performance of the country itself. That comes with greater trust in government and confidence in the future. So there are tools and techniques that can be deployed to help.

Consideration should also be given to more integrated, ecological models of how viruses and infections work, what some call “conservation medicine”. Many of the problems of pandemics arise from unnecessarily narrow specialised focus and adoption of particular disease transmission paradigms that marginalise knowledge in related areas.

Without being too draconian in this respect, some rethink is appropriate of the prevailing public health driven model, characterised by high degrees of alarmist rhetoric and hyperactivity, to achieve a measure of integration particularly around pinch points in the flow of information for effective decision-making.  A ‘systems model’ would start with the likely inaccuracy of diagnostic tools (which both over- and under-report). There is also a general weakness in animal and human disease surveillance and corresponding weaknesses in subsequent information management.  What we know from thinking like a virus is that humans can be just as dangerous as the bats that originate the virus, but we use different logic when dealing with humans as with the bats.

Compounding he problem with Ebola and other zoonoses of that type is that our ability to collect information and act is slower than the pace of spread.

Obviously screening people at airports makes sense within the public health model, but makes little sense from the point of view of the virus itself. Regretfully, quarantining whole countries may need to contemplated. Screening at airports does little when the origin is people arising from stricken regions. What do they say about closing the barn doors after the cows have left?

But we must learn how to think more like the virus, so we react more quickly, and ensure the virus will not have the opportunity to spread.  After all, that is what the virus wants to do.

About the three most at-risk countries

The countries that are the core to the current Ebola crisis are Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. Using WHO Human Development data (from here), we learn that these three countries are classified as low development countries: Liberia is ranked 175, Guinea 179 and Sierra Leone 183; there are 187 countries on the list. They spend less than 3.0% of GDP on education (closer to 5% is associated with higher education attainment levels) and with literacy levels below 50%. Expenditure on health as a percentage of GDP shows they are essentially cash-based systems, which given the relative poor human development means access to healthcare will be income rather than need linked — they have health systems for those who can afford it. Transparency International ranks these countries toward the bottom (more rather than less corrupt) with scores below 30 (see here). All very worrisome but indicative of national priorities at odds with the needs of the country. Many are more prone to conflict than care.

What Cognology says

Dear Virus

There are some excellent countries for you to consider: poor literacy, poverty, unhealthy population with low life expectancies (under 50 years or so), internal strife and conflict, corruption.

Guinea: spends 6% of GDP on health, of which 67.4% is cash

Sierra Leone: spends 18.8% on health, of which 74.9% is cash

Liberia: spends 19.5% on health of which 17.7% is cash (best of the three in that respect)

Want to know more?

Laurie Garrett’s The Coming Plague, 1994. See here at Garrett’s website. And they say prophecy is dead.

Who thinks these things up?

Right now, there is the proposed NHS Reinstatement Bill, a lobby document which lays out a way to reverse many NHS reforms.

This lobby document, which is what is it, is familiar reading, and brings back various structures that in the past have failed. You can find information on it at this link.

What is interesting about this approach is the aura of respectability that it wraps itself in, by proposing the changes as a legislative draft, almost as though it were ready to go to committee.  This is, obviously, an influencing tactic designed to force debate onto the topics covered in the proposed bill, and disarm critics who don’t agree that the points in the lobby document are the right starting points. In that respect, the lobby document polarises positions, particularly against current policy direction.

The whole lobby document’s comments and notes identifies proposed changes to a variety of existing legilsation. What we don’t find, though is any evidence that the authors were in any way persuasive  or influential during public consultations at the time. We call that ‘sour grapes’.

Approaches such as this suffer from the following:

  1.  a belief that the fundamental values underpinning the health service can only be protected in a particular way and these are the ways things used to be.
  2. a belief that the changes that have been made have violated these values; moreover, that the solutions have made things ‘worse’ as they see it.
  3. selective use of academic research to support the positions that one wishes to avoid changing.

New PublicManagement as reform of government itself must sit uncomfortably with this regressive thinking.

For the authors, they would no doubt point to market failure logic to prove that the NHS should not be ‘marketised’ as they put it, forgetting that a greater fear is ‘government failure’, for which there is ample evidence, not just with the NHS but a whole host of other public initiatives and legislation that has wasted public money.

Healthcare systems are complex and by trying to overlay what they see as simple solutions to the problems they claim arise from the reform agenda of past years, they misrepresent what the actual problems are. As messy, or complex/wicked, challenges, the authors believe that by taking away that messiness, they’ll also take away the problems. But they know just as well as anyone, that their solutions will only create, perhaps even recreate, the very problems that led to reform in the first place, except now they will be today’s problems, not yesterday’s.

One might argue that the authors are committing a type 3 error, of unintentionally solving the wrong problem well, but that would assume that they have are not clear in their minds what they are proposing. Therefore, it appears they are do know better and are committing a type 4 error, of intentially solving the wrong problem well because that fits with their policy preferences, or prejudices.

That’s why this is a lobby document, designed to intensionally convince, (is mislead too strong?) others of their definition of what the NHS problem is.

What Cognology says

The lobby document and the authors are caught by a fundamental policy trap: of solving the wrong problem.

Want to know more?

Government failure in the UK is examined in Anthony King and Ivor Crewe, The Blunders of Our Governments, 2013 (@Amazon) and in Richard Bacon and Christopher Hope, Conundrum: Why every government gets things wrong and what we can do about it, 2013. (@Amazon)

New Public Management was originally conceptualised by Christopher Hood, in 1991, A Public Management for All Seasons. Public Administration, 69 (Spring), 3-19. Some (Dunlevey et al) argue that New Public Management is dead and that governance in the digital era requires greater, not less, government. That may be the case for some, but if you actually look at the tools that are available to government in a digital world, you’d find that there is little reason for government to own or run very much. See Christopher Hood and Helen Margetts, The Tools of Government in the Digital Age, 2007. (@Amazon)

I have found Leslie David Simon’s book, NetPolicy.com (Woodrow Willson Centre, 2000) an early, and compelling way of laying out the digital agenda in a policy context really well. (@Amazon)

I would also recommend Vito Tanzi, Government versus Markets: the changing economic role of the state, 2011. (@Amazon)