In a matter of days, suits will descend on San Francisco for the annual J.P. Morgan Healthcare conference. What was once, three decades ago, a small gathering of brave souls trying to lift the biotechnology industry off the ground has become a four-day celebration of the intersection of money and health care.
As such, it's a great barometer for the year ahead. And this year, with the first Obamacare patients receiving coverage as of Jan. 1, listening to what the biggest companies in health care are saying will become even more important. Here are the four things worth listening for:
1. What kind of impact will Obamacare have on drugmakers? Will it unleash a new wave of consumers in need of treatment? Or will doctors, patients and insurers work together to guide consumers toward lower-priced options? Will it depend on the kind of drug? The answers aren't clear, so plenty of folks will be listening for hints as to what kind of boom (or bust) pharmaceutical companies may see.
2. Wither accountable care organizations? Accountable care organizations, or ACOs, are at the heart of some of Obamacare's cost-saving plans. ACOs operate on what is, from afar, a simple framework: organizations that can deliver quality care for fewer dollars get to keep some of the savings, making everyone more accountable for cost savings. But early returns have suggested that, even with incentives, it's not easy to find savings. Last year, some pioneering ACOs packed the room at J.P. Morgan, extolling the promise of the concept. Will everyone be as optimistic this time around?
3. Where will all the care come from? Fears of an Obamacare-fueled doctor shortage have been quelled, in part, by the argument that more and more patients will receive their care in "subacute" settings: think clinics in your local pharmacy. Some of the big pharmacy chains will be behind the podium at J.P. Morgan, making the question of whether (or how) those institutions plan to do more clinical care vitally important in the age of Obamacare.
4. What about digital health? Ten years ago, President George W. Bush pledged to see to it that "most Americans" would have electronic health records within a decade. But the last 10 years has tested idea that more bytes and less paper will lead, inevitably, to a safer, cheaper and more effective health system. At the end of the first day of the conference, a collection of digital health luminaries will assess what the digital future holds.
Of course, as big as Obamacare is, no single set of perspectives from corporate leaders will tell the whole story. But even after more than four years of near-constant discussion, there's still much that we don't know. The coming weeks should begin -- begin -- to shed some light.