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What Doctors And Patients Can Learn From Apple And Steve Jobs

First, I am a big admirer of Apple CEO Steve Jobs for his thoughtful 2005 Stanford commencement speech, his clarity of vision, and his superb skills as a leader. Fortune magazine named him CEO of the decade after turning around the company he founded from near bankruptcy in the late 1990s to becoming the most valued company today. Though I have great respect for him, I haven’t bought an Apple product, ever, until this year.

So I watched with great interest his press conference regarding Antennagate which has consumed technology news with regards to the design of the new iPhone 4 and its new antenna design. Apparently this makes the smartphone vulnerable to dropping phone calls when held a certain way, known as the death grip. If one simply avoided holding the phone that one explicit way, the phone otherwise worked fine. As a result, 22 days after the latest iPhone was available to the public, Jobs and Apple were instead addressing an issue which dwarfed their latest product launch.

Doctors and patients can learn plenty by watching Jobs’ approach to the problem, because the situation he and his team were tackling is similar to what a doctor addresses daily in the office.

Such as:

  • Perception is reality regardless of the truth.
  • Hard data is important to have candid conversation. Specifically the right data.
  • Sometimes emotions are so overwhelming that something needs to be done. This can be good or bad.
  • People who advocate certain positions have inherent biases, which can make their argument far from objective, hence the need for hard data and expertise to interpret.

With all of the negative press, Jobs figured that a reasonable person might figure that about 50 percent of iPhone users would complain of dropped calls or that a significant number would return them. The hard data from Apple shows that only 0.55 percent of calls to their customer service center were in regards to phone call reception and that 1.7 percent of iPhone 4s have been turned. This return rate was far lower than the 6 percent observed last year during the iPhone 3GS launch.

Although Jobs noted that there were plenty of opinions about the possible reasons and solutions for the problem, the press conference was convened nearly three weeks after launch because Apple engineers needed time to understand the issue fully. As revolutionary as the iPhone 4 is, the very small technical issue which affected a very small number of users became a firestorm. Jobs announced free cases to all iPhone 4 users which seems to mitigate the problem even though the vast majority of users have no problems. He reiterated that new owners unhappy with the phone could return it for a full refund within 30 days. In the end, Jobs reflected that he and the people at Apple work extremely hard to keep their users happy.

Doctors address these issues daily which come up in conversations with patients. This could be in regards to the risk and benefits of immunizations, the need for antibiotics for possible Lyme disease exposure, or many other concerns where a person can psych himself. The internet can be powerful in arming patients with plenty of information, but fails to provide them experience or medical expertise or the objectivity needed to make a good thoughtful decision. (A good reason why doctors shouldn’t take care of their own family members).

With the ongoing economic crisis, many patients are presenting with chest pain. Some are convinced that they have heart disease and won’t accept anything less than a heart stress test or other imaging even if based on their symptoms, initial testing (basic labs, chest xray, and EKG), and risk factors (age, gender, smoking status) that the hard data clearly points a problem elsewhere.

At that moment, sometimes doctors are unable to talk a person down from their emotional ledge need to do something to address a patient’s piece of mind. This could be a referral to a cardiologist or a basic treadmill test.

Hopefully that resolves the issue, but at what cost? Was it the right thing to do?

If the treadmill is a false positive, this will require a further work-up which may include an invasive cardiac catheterization. Although rare, patients can die from the procedure. Doing a test in a highly unlikely patient would be considered very questionable by many doctors. Will an individual doctor be confident enough to stop the process based mainly on emotion and perception when hard clinical data points in another direction? Is it possible that the tyranny of the short office visit and the need to do something perpetuate the problem and result in further testing?

In this case, all of this was done for stress? Was all of the additional testing and increased risk of harm needed to demonstrate a normal heart?

As Jobs and Apple know, an issue can be blown out of proportion and emotions can run high when perception distorts reality. Free cases are an easy fix.

When it comes to medical care, sometimes the easy fix may require doctors being calm, listening, and spending time to understand a person’s concern. Does keeping patients happy and healthy sometimes mean saying no and providing rational thoughtful care?

For patients it means not believing everything they read or hear from friends, family, or the internet (or even other doctors and healthcare providers who only know pieces of information but not the entire story). With increasing financial responsibility through higher deductibles and copays (consumer-driven healthcare), will patients listen to doctors who can help make the right decision with their clinical expertise or rely on the information gathered by the Internet and demand testing believing that is the right thing to do?

Based on my experience, it doesn’t look good. It’s getting harder to talk some patients off their ledge.

We could certainly use Jobs and his leadership team in healthcare or least his presentation skills. When asked during Q&A, Jobs and his team pulled out their iPhone 4s — all without an external case.

And, yes — my phone works perfectly fine.

*This blog post was originally published at Saving Money and Surviving the Healthcare Crisis*

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