Tech-savvy and compassionate: Alice Walton writes prescription for future doctors at Heartland Summit

by Paul Gatling ([email protected]) 2,458 views 

Alice Walton and Walter Harris have a conversation about reimagining America's healthcare delivery system during the Heartland Summit on Thursday in Bentonville.

Billionaire philanthropist Alice Walton is investing heavily in the future of healthcare. During an appearance Thursday (Nov. 9) to discuss the topic, she touted the importance of technology and artificial intelligence in that endeavor.

“The doctors of tomorrow — today — need to be very comfortable with technology and AI,” she said. “They can help rural America in healthcare more than anything else. That combination will allow us to connect people in our rural communities who traditionally lack access to healthcare expertise.

“I want our doctors of tomorrow to be part ‘techie,’ with a great big heart.”

Walton, the only daughter of Walmart Inc. founders Sam and Helen Walton, spoke in Bentonville as part of the Heartland Summit. The day-and-a-half, invitation-only gathering kicked off Wednesday night.

The summit is the signature annual event of Heartland Forward, a nonpartisan “think-and-do” tank in Bentonville. Heartland Forward formally launched in the fall of 2019 — one year after the Heartland Summit’s first iteration — and is spearheaded by members of the Walton family and led by former Milken Institute Chief Research Officer Ross DeVol. It is the first U.S. think tank focused exclusively on the economic situation of the Heartland region.

In several breakout sessions Thursday at multiple venues throughout Bentonville, attendees had free-flowing conversations and discussed strategies on various topics, including outdoor recreation, maternal health/childcare, biomimicry, adolescent mental health, artificial intelligence, impact investing, agriculture innovation, advanced mobility, domestic and global insights, entrepreneurship, economic development and reimagining America’s healthcare system.

In January 2020, Walton announced a new nonprofit organization to make a transformative approach to health and well-being available to everyone. The Whole Health Institute is now under construction near Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville.

The following year, Walton announced plans to build a new medical school in Bentonville to complement the institute. The Alice L. Walton School of Medicine [AWSOM] is also under construction near the museum’s 120-acre grounds. The college hopes to be approved to recruit students by the summer of 2024 and welcome its first class in the fall of 2025.

Walton, the museum’s founder, said her healthcare motivation stemmed from a 2019 report produced for the Northwest Arkansas Council that showed the region was losing more than $1 billion each year due to its lack of specialty care options.

“That report got me thinking about ways to bring current and new providers into this space and create a healthcare destination that would not only erase that deficit but maybe add another $1 billion,” she explained during Thursday’s healthcare session inside the 21c Museum Hotel. “What do we need to do to have the best healthcare system in the country, and could we make this a model that can be replicated in other parts of the country? That would take a medical school that trains doctors differently.

“They [students] will have the basic sciences, but they will understand the economics of healthcare, and they will also have the compassion and the focus on keeping people healthy.”

Walton’s brief conversation Thursday was with Walter Harris, who oversees operations for healthcare transformation initiatives for Walton’s nonprofits, including AWSOM. It was the prelude to a panel discussion about reimagining America’s healthcare delivery system that featured:

  • Sharmila Makhija, founding dean and CEO of AWSOM;
  • Lisa Jacobs Blau, a serial wellness entrepreneur, CEO and angel investor in women-founded and wellness-focused businesses; and
  • Clint Phillips, founder and CEO of Medici, a global healthcare communication platform that’s attracted millions in investment.

Phillips, a native of South Africa, agreed with Walton that doctors need to be trained differently, and that’s why he is excited about AWSOM’s progress and possibilities.

“Doctors have to be a mix of technology and love,” he said. “Healthcare is that beautiful blend. Technology by itself won’t do it. The app store has a million healthcare apps, and we are no healthier. There are many medical devices and drugs [available]; we’re not healthier.”

Phillips also commented on value-based reimbursement for physicians. That approach incentivizes healthcare providers to keep a population healthy.

“If I help you avoid back surgery, teach you to stretch, keep your back healthy, I get paid nothing,” he explained. “If I perform your back surgery, I get paid $36,000. That’s a terrible incentive.”

Makhija, hired earlier this year from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Montefiore Health System in Bronx, N.Y., said AWSOM’s curriculum is in development. The education may be reimagined, but it doesn’t discount the foundational sciences and clinical skills.

“They still have to be doctors,” she said. “But we’re intentionally integrating the arts and humanities. We strongly feel that’s the piece missing: that human touch.”

Makhija said maternal mortality is the most significant issue facing women’s health in the future. In her previous job, she was department chair of obstetrics, gynecology and women’s health. She compared that with her experience in oncology, also extensive.

“[Maternal mortality] is the biggest problem across the country,” she said. “That’s not to say women with cancer don’t deserve the best care. They do. But it’s a different mindset. A woman giving birth should not be dying of birth. That child should not be growing up without a mom.

“How to improve maternal health is a focus.”

Elsewhere at the summit on Thursday, representatives from Cincinnati, Omaha, Neb., and Oxford, Miss., discussed the “secret sauce” of their cities, exhibiting models for towns and cities around the heartland for developing strategies to help their cities thrive.

Having emerged as a significant technology and startup hub with an industry job growth rate of nearly 20% in five years, summit organizers invited Cincinnati for its focus on economic growth, diversity and resilience. Omaha was chosen for its focus on job growth and urban core revitalization, emphasizing strong collaboration between business, philanthropic and public sectors, leading to years of steady economic growth. And Oxford, the smallest community featured this year, was named for its historic growth and its national – and even global – attention as a rich cultural destination.

The discussion at event venue Record included:

  • Candice Matthews Brackeen of Cincinnati, general partner at Lightship Foundation;
  • Carmen Tapio of Omaha, chair of the Greater Omaha Regional Chamber and president and CEO of North End Teleservices LLC; and
  • Oxford Mayor Robyn Tannehill.

Angie Cooper, executive director of Heartland Summit and executive vice president at Heartland Forward, said it was particularly inspiring to hear from those seeing success in their communities.

“We hope their achievements will serve as a path forward for other heartland communities looking to unlock their potential,” Cooper said.

Tannehill said Oxford leaders make a dedicated effort to cherish and preserve the city’s unique cultural heritage, which has played an essential role in becoming one of the state’s fastest-growing cities.

“This is an exciting time for our city, and I’m grateful for the recognition as one of Heartland Forward’s secret sauce communities and the opportunity to share our story and lessons learned with other heartland leaders,” she said.

Due to its 13 Fortune 1000 companies and leading manufacturers, no other major metropolitan area in the U.S. features a greater concentration of management and manufacturing operations than Cincinnati.

The panel also spotlighted Omaha’s robust economic base with prominent Fortune 500 companies, including Berkshire Hathaway, Union Pacific, Peter Kiewit Sons and Mutual of Omaha. Heartland Forward officials said Omaha’s cost of doing business is 12% below the national average, and the cost of living is 7% below the national average.

“Our collective efforts to strengthen and revitalize historically underserved areas in Omaha is ensuring every place and space of Omaha is substantial, accessible, and can be enjoyed by the entire community,” Tapio said.

One of Thursday’s sessions at the Momentary examined how specific heartland regions are leveraging their assets and resources to attract economic development investments and public-private partnerships. The discussion included:

  • Lydia Mihalik, director of the Ohio Department of Development;
  • Jeff Seymour, executive vice president of economic development for the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber; and
  • Michael Hecht, president and CEO of Greater New Orleans.

Mihalik, a former mayor of Findlay, Ohio, discussed the work done to position Ohio for a $20 billion investment from Intel, which is building two new chip factories in central Ohio. As the most significant single private-sector investment in Ohio’s history, the project’s initial phase is expected to create 3,000 Intel jobs and 7,000 construction jobs.

At full buildout, the total investment in the site could grow to as much as $100 billion over the next decade, making it one of the largest semiconductor manufacturing sites in the world.

Ohio is one of the nation’s leading agricultural states and may not come immediately to mind when discussing semiconductors.

Mihalik said she knew there was an existing workforce to support the project — Ohio already had about 150 Intel suppliers — and education partners already supplying that workforce who would be up to the task.

“We had to demonstrate that to Intel,” she said. “And I’m proud to say that we are working hand-in-hand with Intel right now, and with higher education and K-12, to ensure that we have the people to fill those positions that are available right now.”

Hecht touted a U.S. Economic Development Administration (EDA) grant of $50 million awarded to H2theFuture, a 25-organization partnership with representation from across South Louisiana. H2theFuture will develop a new energy cluster in south Louisiana, spanning the clean hydrogen life cycle, from research and development at Louisiana universities to an end-use project at the Port of South Louisiana.

“Louisiana has always been an energy state and will be in the future,” he said. “That’s our attitude, and we have the assets and workforce. But we have to do it in a better way and a lower carbon way.”

He said he is most excited about a specific part of the grant to establish the New Energy Center of the U.S. (NEXUS) at the University of New Orleans. He said NEXUS will serve as the physical and programmatic hub for various clean energy initiatives.