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Solutions for Our Broken Healthcare System

From Arianna Huffington's Newsletter: ON MY MIND

Founder and CEO at Thrive Global




“Unsustainable: Our Broken Healthcare System.” That was the topic of my panel at Stanford University’s first Business, Government and Society Forum, where I was joined by Alice Walton, founder of the Heartland Whole Health Institute and the Alice L. Walton School of Medicine; Dr. Lloyd Minor, Dean of Stanford’s School of Medicine; and moderator Michele Gelfand, professor of organizational behavior at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business.


In the U.S. alone, healthcare spending has gone from 5% of GDP in 1960 to 17% in 2022. And 90% of that $4.1 trillion goes toward the treatment of chronic and mental health conditions. Outcomes are getting worse every year, with skyrocketing increases in diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular diseases. 


This is like the period before we were all truly aware of the climate crisis. For healthcare, this is our Inconvenient Truth moment. 


“I believe healthcare will bankrupt our country and companies if we don’t look at financial incentives and how healthcare is structured in this country,” said Alice Walton. “The whole system is oriented to fixing you once you get unhealthy.” Part of that is because we define healthcare so narrowly, thinking of it only as medical treatment, but health is also what happens between doctor visits. As Dean Minor noted, “We have a fantastic sick care system in the U.S., which does a great job taking care of severely ill people who have access to that system.” 


Yet we do have a solution that we’re not using nearly widely enough: behavior change, which is a miracle drug — not just for preventing disease but for optimizing the management of disease. Our genes are responsible for less than 10% of health outcomes, medical care accounts for 10% to 20%, while our behaviors account for an estimated 36%. The science is clear that when we make even small improvements in our five foundational daily behaviors — sleep, food, movement, stress management and connection — dramatic improvements in our health follow.


Walton shared why her mission with her medical school and the Whole Health Institute is to take a whole human approach, incorporating tools like art and nature to support all aspects of well-being. “Eastern cultures are more connected in health and spirituality, but in Western medicine we’ve taken mental health and behavior out of the healthcare system and put them in their own closet,” she said. “We have to put mental health and behavior back in the middle of how we take care of people.”


Yes, behavior change is hard, but over the last seven years at Thrive we have proven that it is absolutely possible and sustainable when it’s done right. Working with leading behavior change scientists, Thrive Global has developed and tested strategies that have been extremely successful, including Microsteps — incremental, too-small-to-fail daily steps people can take to build healthier habits — storytelling and community. And we’ve created Thrive Reset, a 60-second tool based on the neuroscience that shows we’re able to course-correct from stress in as little as 60 seconds.


Healthcare is the ultimate inequity. As we all know, the burdens of our broken healthcare system are not being borne equally throughout our society. As Dean Minor noted, our zip code is a better predictor of our health than our genetic code. 


The power of behavior change is also not equitably distributed. We know that the 1% is already all in. We now need to make it a priority for the rest of the world. What makes me most optimistic is that with AI, we can democratize behavior change and through hyper-personalization make the healthier choice the path of least resistance and meet the scale of this crisis. 



At Thrive, we’re building AI health coaches that will be trained not only on the best peer-reviewed science, but also our biometric, lab and other medical data, and our unique preferences — which foods we love and don’t love, how and when we’re most likely to walk, move and stretch, and the most effective ways we can reduce stress.


We ended on an optimistic note: this is the time to go from our Inconvenient Truth moment to meaningful change, from awareness to action. We see it in Walton’s innovative new medical school and Whole Health Institute, in Dean Minor’s pioneering work on precision medicine and preventative health and in the growing Food is Medicine movement. The science is in. Health is the ultimate ROI.


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