Entrepreneurs are natural storytellers. After all, they’re in the business of selling dreams. The good ones convert their dreams into reality. But increasing, healthcare is seeing an influx of ideas that seem outright unrealistic, even for the best healthcare entrepreneurs.
Who are selling visions of transforming vaguely defined environmental health concerns into business models. As implausible as it may be, they are gaining traction. Stanford Social Innovation Review did a series of features on startups that combine public health and climate change. Financial institution Wells Fargo provided a grant to the Larta Institute out of Los Angeles to support entrepreneurs integrating climate change into health equity models.
“Environmental health refers to the health effects associated with environmental factors, such as air pollution, water contamination, and climate change. Environmental hazards are associated with poor outcomes in common diseases, including diabetes and heart disease.”
These are the opening words from a statement issued by the Health and Public Policy Committee of the American College of Physicians, recently published in the Annals of Internal Medicine. The clinical journal dedicated an entire issue to environmental health, placing it at the forefront of medicine. They used grandiose prose, rife with enough buzzwords to make any social media consultant gleam with joy.
“Research is needed on how environmental health burdens relate to racial and ethnic health disparities.”
“These recommendations include strategies to address climate change, air quality, water quality, environmental toxins, environmental injustice, and public health infrastructure.”
The entire issue reads like jargon soup and epitomizes the worst tendencies of modern medicine – taking genuine health concerns and delegitimizing them with over-to-top prose. They issue decree after decree, recommending vague policies and advocating for research studies that are poorly defined at best and overtly fantastical at worst.
These are solutions in rhetoric only. They lack the practical means to implement much of anything, let alone become business models. They turn real issues like environment health, which is a significant social determinant of health, and convert it into an amorphous concept, nothing more than a buzzword bereft of meaning.
This hasn’t stopped healthcare entrepreneurs from issuing similarly grandiose proclamations of their own: They will be the ones to solve the gargantuan of a problem that is environmental health. But you can’t create solutions to problems you can’t define.
Venture capital can’t help itself. In a world where failure is celebrated and victories are few and far in between, there is a fine line between delusion and optimism that often blurs into an interpretive oblivion.
Take venture capital’s recent foray into clean energy. It was an unmitigated disaster. Billions of dollars were thrown into companies with half-baked ideas trying to solve a problem that we still don’t fully understand. Climate change is a similarly complex problem we simplify through the comfort of generic platitudes.
Taking a complex problem and simplifying it doesn’t actually solve it. But apparently, it gets you funded. That’s concerning.
Entrepreneurs and investors have no problem crossing the line from optimism into delusion so long as they see investment dollars coming. It’s venture capital’s tendency to default to action. So they both chase after diffuse, poorly understood problems with all the glee necessary to turn abstract problems into power point magic.
Once we cross the Rubicon of environmental health funding, there’s no turning off the venture capital cash flow. Investors will get funding and happily pass it along to entrepreneurs while collecting their fees. Entrepreneurs will propel ill conceived business models aiming to do too much with hardly much of anything outside of grandiose visions, buzzwords, and, of course, venture dollars.
But nothing will get solved, because systemic problems in healthcare can’t be fixed with high-growth, scalable solutions characteristic of what is found in venture capital. We just think they can, just like we pretend environmental health is a newly discovered problem.
We’ve known about environmental health as a systemic problem since the late 90s, but hardly anyone invested dollars into it. Now the field is enjoying renewed vigor and the accompanying rhetoric to jettison it to the top of our collective attention.
In a world where attention flickers like a candle in the wind, it’s hard to tell when the winds will change direction. Environmental health is having its moment right now. Investors are pouring lavish sums into it vowing to find entrepreneurs capable of solving some of the most complex problems of our lifetime.
We’ve seen this play before. We know how it ends. Shakespeare coined it best. This latest venture capital fascination with environmental health is, “much ado about nothing.”