Dr. Jessica Mega, Chief Medical Officer at Verily, has an expansive perspective on health innovation and has helped guide Verily from being a project within Google to standing on its own two feet.
We sat down with her right before the StartUp Health Festival to learn how companies like Google can help power health transformation. Our full interview is below!
Verily has its hands in a wide range of projects, from smart lenses to raising sterile mosquitoes to precision medicine. In your role as Chief Medical Officer, where are you investing most of your time right now?
The way I summarize my job is to keep my feet on the ground but keep my head in the sky. We’re continually thinking about big bold initiatives while understanding the steps that we need to take to get there.
I spend time thinking about what are some areas of healthcare that we can impact today using some of the technologies that a company like Google and Verily has? We know that diabetes is a major health issue. And we know that by measuring glucose and providing more tools to patients, they can live healthier lives. So we have a whole host of solutions and tools trying to address a problem. The same may be said of mosquitoes. Vector-borne illness is a major cause of morbidity and mortality. If we can use some of the same technologies that are used to scale other infrastructures to scale mosquito rearing we can address a major problem today.
We’re trying to create tools that help us think about how to handle the next generation of health information that may look a little bit different than what we’re used to.
There are so many ways that you could get mired down in the pragmatic side of a business.
How do you keep your head in the sky as you say?
You’re right, there are a lot of pieces that you need to get right in the beginning, where you need to think about really basic things. You have put the system in place. We have really exciting partnerships with the FDA around a precertification program. So we’ve got to get that piece right. Once you have that, what I’ve started to see is you can think more broadly about solutions that are out there. I’ll give you an example: We have an interesting problem across the world with blindness and diabetic retinopathy. Well, we know that there’s a lot of people taking pictures of their cats and the dogs and their kids and there’s a lot of infrastructure being built around image recognition. Could we take that same type of skill and apply it to reading images of the eye, so that people won’t need to go blind?
The way that I personally try to keep this open mindset is to make sure that we have the fundamentals that allow us to take new technologies and apply them. And again once the fundamentals are in place, you can start to move much more quickly.
Any practical advice for a CEO of a smaller company that really needs to think big picture but is struggling with the day to day?
This person, like me, is going to be putting out a lot of fires on a day-to-day basis. You need to carve out a period of time to yourself to think, and to let people push you. I have to deliberately look for pockets where I can be absolutely creative. Find and create the space to do the things that are important and big but that you wouldn’t normally have the luxury of doing if you just go from one small fire to the next.
One practical way we’ve accomplished this at Verily is to create a few weeks which are called “no meetings” weeks. Those are times where people work on either a really big project, where they have to code for a long period of time, or step back and think about the hard and exciting things that you normally wouldn’t get to in a day. There’s so much of an emphasis on short-term productivity and being busy and getting things out the door; but that may or may not be the best way to be truly transformative.
We frame it as questioning convention. Are there more efficient systems? The key is to be excited when you uncover that question, not be thrown off. I’m a physician and I’m used to doing things in a certain environment, and there’s a software engineer who is used to doing things in an environment. We start to question each other — that could lead to people digging their heels into the. But we try to embrace that as something exciting. You have to interact with folks that challenge your way of thinking, be open to those ideas and run with them.
Is there a project right now that you feel like really challenges convention in an exciting way?
There’s one initiative that we’re doing that goes across our entire company. It’s called Project Baseline. We are trying to map health more comprehensively than ever before. If I were to ask someone traditionally what do they think is their health and what is their health record, they may turn to really traditional definitions, like what lives on their electronic health record or what prescriptions they have. But that’s just a fraction of health overall. What makes up health data is going to skyrocket in the future. It may start with sensor data to really understanding how someone may be moving every day. This might lead to insights about what behaviors are people choosing.
A big question is: What is the infrastructure that you need to deal with health data in real time? And that is really challenging us on an infrastructure side. So I think this idea of unlocking comprehensive health data and organizing it and then bringing it and making it actionable is pushing all of us.
One of our tools is what we call the Study Watch. And a piece of Study Watch shows how people walk and how they move in time and space. I don’t know that that’s going to end up changing care. Let me give you an example: I had a patient and they were walking up the stairs and they walk up the stairs in their house. It takes them about two minutes each day. If all of a sudden it’s taking them three minutes and four minutes and five minutes and they’re favoring one knee or the other, there’s a moment there potentially to get some physical therapy before they would need a knee replacement. And so I think just our different understanding of health is going to continue to grow as we have tools to further understand what it really means to have different biologic conditions. And so I don’t think there’s any one company that’s going to crack all of it.
Verily was birthed out of Google Life Sciences. How did that impact your DNA and what do you see as the role of a tech giant compared to a small health startup?
We started off with a handful of people thinking about healthcare. We were imbedded within Google at the time but now have become a separate business unit. I think from an innovator’s perspective, where they have one or two people in their company, what I would be thinking about is leveraging infrastructure that folks are building but really being able to think about what’s the problem they’re uniquely going to solve. Sometimes people can move really quickly in that environment. Leverage the community around you. Figure out what’s the unique question you’re trying to answer. The thing that’s neat — and also frustrating — about healthcare is that there are a lot of issues that can be addressed and there’s plenty to tackle. We are all going to do better as we try to help one another.
Do you have a personal motivation behind your desire to fix the healthcare system? What’s your story?
In my early days as a cardiologist, I absolutely loved taking care of patients and I loved bringing new solutions that were always getting better. In cardiology, we’ve made a huge amount of progress in terms of the different medicines we use, the different advice that we give. But the more time you spend, the more you realize there’s going to be different motivators, different features, different ways people metabolize drugs. And the more information we have, the more we can help stratify and really get people the right solutions at the right time.
The motivator for me to join a company like Google was that I didn’t see other places where we could start to really harness all those insights. It’s a place where people love understanding and teasing out information. There’s a lot of talk of big data and deep data, but I have been so blown away by being with Google where it’s a group of folks who really want to get their hands dirty and understand what that all means. Because health data isn’t always straight forward.
Here’s what it comes down to. I work in critical care cardiology and I would very frequently meet patients at the moment of an incredibly acute episode. So someone has a heart attack. Their blood pressure is falling. We can’t open their artery. We are doing everything we possibly can to keep them alive in the moment. In so many cases the moment where I could have been most effective would be upstream. If I understood that something was going to be happening I could have been able to intervene or I could have been able to think about a way to change the course.
We as a society view health or disease as either there or not there. It’s a very binary thing. But what tools do we need to get ahead of this? Where can we start to make a difference?
Is there something that you wish people understood about the work that goes on in Google healthcare community that is maybe misunderstood?
Google is an organization and group of people that understand the complexities of healthcare and life science. And we have brought together now whole teams of scientists, health economists, physicians together with software engineers and device developers. It’s a group that is really excited about healthcare and life science but also understands that that can be a really complicated place. There’s engineering risk and biological risk. So you can create an amazing tool and it may or may not work given the dynamism of biology. In the end, we are really realistic about what this endeavor holds but are also optimistic because there’s so much work that can be accomplished, by us and others.
Source : https://healthtransformer.co/feet-on-the-earth-head-in-the-sky-dr-jessica-mega-f396d72170b0