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Billionaire Doctor Puts His Money Where His Mind Is

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Patrick Soon-Shiong is a very smart guy who’s been told “no” all his life. Ignoring that, he’s now worth billions. And he wants to turn healthcare on its head.

Oh really? I don't think you can do that.

“That’s the most exciting time in life, when people tell me I can’t do that,” he says with a laugh. “I don’t know what it is about me, when you say, ‘You can’t do that,’ because then I say, ‘Well, that’s great, because then that’s exactly what I should do.’”

To achieve his goal, Dr. Soon-Shiong is spending $1 billion of a fortune he acquired building and selling drug firm APP Pharmaceuticals. With that money he is hiring the brightest minds in the world to create a smart grid for medical information. He describes it as a “Bell Labs of healthcare”, “a public utility”, and “a medical information superhighway.”

“The idea would be in my mind—and I know it sounds strange—is that the most important advances in medicine would be made not by new knowledge in molecular biology, because that’s exceeding what we can even use,” Dr. Soon-Shiong says. “It’ll be made by mathematicians, physicists, computer scientists, figuring out a way to get all that information together.”

At heart, he wants to use the internet to create a way for all of your medical information to follow you portably, encrypted securely to give you control of access, which can then be combined through the right software with the most up to date medical information relevant to your situation. He points to the way the world responded to the H1N1 virus as a model of how transparency and communication can save lives. “We need to think of chronic disease, hypertension, cancer, like H1N1,” Dr. Soon-Shiong says. “In fact, there’s an epidemic of chronic disease.” Yet currently, if you go to the doctor, who then sends you to a specialist, who maybe sends you to the hospital, “that trail of the patient today is impossible to follow, even by the physicians.” He calls the myriad of proprietary systems of medical record-keeping “medical bridges to nowhere.” The system he wants to build would bring it all together, and you could access it on your iPhone. Oh yeah, he also wants the system to make costs transparent as well. So are the health insurance companies on board with his plan? “Not really.”

The other thing Dr. Soon-Shiong is pushing, which may be even more revolutionary, is to completely change the mindset about healthcare.

He says the industry is currently motivated by treating illness, not by maintaining health.

Doctors and drug companies only make money when you’re sick. There need to be incentives to keep people healthy. Certainly there are incentives for those paying insurance premiums, and some payers are proactively going down this road already. My company, GE , is offering a new health plan starting next year which offers reduced premiums for employees who don’t smoke, as well as 100% coverage for wellness care, i.e., physicals and vaccines. Can we create enough incentives for drug companies and physicians to find profits in preventing illness?

Dr. Soon-Shiong and his wife, actress Michele Chan, recently donated $100 million to St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica to help that facility become a major hub in his “Bell Labs”. He says his smart grid is already being used by several children’s hospitals, where specialists can immediately weigh in online about the best treatment for a sick child. Dr. Soon-Shiong remains chairman of Abraxis BioScience , which he founded, and he still plans to spin out subsidiary Abraxis Health at some point. Forbes has him as the third richest man in Los Angeles, at $4 billion (behind Eli Broad and David Geffen), but the Los Angeles Business Journal has him at #1 at $6 billion. I asked him which is right. “I have no idea,” he says with a laugh. “That’s not what I focus on.”

If you want to see how this scientist and surgeon sees a way out of what he calls a “mess”, listen here to a large portion of our interview. I keep trying to find weaknesses in Dr. Soon-Shiong’s plan, but he seems to have an answer for everything. Still, does he have enough money to make it happen? Can he convince the government—which he feels is a necessary partner to make the system work in terms of funding and regulations—sign on? Seems unlikely. But here’s a guy who ignored those who told him “no” when he became a doctor at the age of 23 in apartheid South Africa, where he had to work for half the wages of his white contemporaries. He was told “you can’t do that” when he went outside of the medical community, to places like JPL and NASA, to develop radical therapies—whether it was saving diabetics by transplanting pancreas cells encapsulated in seaweed to avoid rejection, or creating a less toxic treatment for breast cancer using nanoparticles, a technology he thinks can be used in treating melanoma and pancreatic cancer.

But change the entire way medical information is shared? Make costs transparent? Change the profit motive? Is he nuts? “I love doing a lot of things I’m told I can’t do,” he says. “I think that’s what drives me and keeps me awake every day.”

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