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Amazon-led health venture should focus on life expectancy and disease prevention, experts say

Key Points
  • 23andMe's Anne Wojcicki and Stanford's Steve Quake had some advice for Atul Gawande, based on their own experience in health care.
  • They're hoping he focuses on preventative health and improving life expectancy.
(L-R) Jane Metcalfe, Anne Wojcicki, and Stephen Quake speak onstage at WIRED25 Summit: WIRED Celebrates 25th Anniversary With Tech Icons Of The Past & Future on October 15, 2018 in San Francisco, California.
Matt Winkelmeyer | Getty Images

The health-care partnership between Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway and J.P. Morgan, announced early this year, is one of the biggest stories in the industry.

So it's only natural that 23andMe CEO Anne Wojcicki and Stanford University's Steven Quake, who have spent decades working in and around health care, were asked about it on stage at the Wired 25th anniversary summit on Monday. Both of them had some advice to offer Atul Gawande, the newly-appointed CEO of the initiative, on where to spend his time and resources.

Quake, who co-leads the Mark Zuckerberg-backed Biohub, a scientific research initiative based in San Francisco, said that Gawande should focus on improving life expectancy. Studies are finding that mortality rates have declined each decade in developed nations like the U.S., but that's now starting to change. There's been a plateau, which can be chalked up to a variety of factors, including the increasing prevalence of heart disease, strokes and diabetes.

Recent research also points to a marked decline in the heath of lower-income Caucasians, which is fueled in part by vulnerability to drug and alcohol abuse and suicide.

"Most of the developed world is on one curve," Quake said, at the conference in San Francisco. "The U.S. is an outlier."

For Quake and Wojcicki, the partnership Gawande is leading provides a unique opportunity to drive results because of the size and influence the three companies possess and the amount of technology and talent at their fingertips.

Amazon, which employs hundreds of thousands of people in its warehouses, recently took the important step of hiking its hourly minimum wage to $15. Quake said the companies have to think big to change the status quo.

"I don't know how you change the system incrementally," he said. "Big experiments like that are an opportunity to get us on the curve."

A focus on prevention

Wojcicki, who worked in health-care banking before starting her genetic testing company, said one way Gawande's joint venture could make a big difference is by focusing on prevention, and not just treating disease.

Insurers sometimes avoid paying for tests, programs and lifestyle interventions that could pay dividends later, even though they aren't likely to have an immediate impact on their members, she said. A genetic test might indicate a higher risk of cancer, and a lifestyle intervention program can teach people important elements of diet and exercise to help them avoid chronic ailments like diabetes later in life.

Insurers don't focus as much on prevention, she said, "because someone else might pay for that."

WATCH: It's Atul Gawande's first day on the job

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It's Dr. Atul Gawande's first day on the job as CEO of health care venture