Michelle Quist: Utah ‘creative disruption’ will make medicines more available

(Tribune File Photo) Utah State Sen. Dan Liljenquist holds a town hall meeting in Draper, Utah, Tuesday,September 13, 2011.

A few years ago I brought my son into the emergency room because he was having difficulty breathing. He was trying to fight a virus handicapped by his small airway and weak muscles.

I hadn’t realized how serious it was. As soon as we walked in the nurse took one look at him and rushed him back to a room. She called a code and within minutes my sweet, little boy was surrounded by nurses and doctors frantically calling out instructions for medicines and other emergent care.

It was truly a scene out of a hospital television show, and I could barely process it. I just stood there helplessly watching.

He was intubated a few hours later and we joined the mass of babies and young toddlers fighting RSV in the PICU.

We were lucky. There were doctors and nurses available, and they had the necessary medications on hand.

But some parents aren’t so lucky. Sometimes the medications aren’t as easily accessible, even very common drugs. And sometimes those shortages are based on business decisions.

The issue is so severe that the American Medication Association adopted a policy declaring drug shortages “an urgent public health crisis.”

Business Insider recently reported there are “205 drugs currently facing shortages,” including “everything from bags of saline solution to common antibiotics and a type of epidural used for pregnant women during childbirth.”

The shortages presented an opportunity to innovate the pharmaceutical industry in general, and a Utah company has taken up that call.

Almost 25 years ago, Clayton Christensen introduced the concept of disruptive innovation. Disruptive innovation “describes a process by which a product or service takes root initially in simple applications at the bottom of a market and then relentlessly moves up market, eventually displacing established competitors.”

We’ve seen disruptive innovations in cell phone technology, personal computers, community colleges, and discount retailers like Amazon.

Known as “Silicon Slopes,” Utah’s tech industry has always been at the forefront of disruptive innovation, from the first electronic television transmission in 1927, to the founder of Atari, to today’s tech behemoths like Ancestry, Skullcandy, Zagg, Overstock, Workfront, 1-800-Contacts, and of course Adobe and Domo.

And now, Civica Rx.

Thursday is the grand opening of Civica, a new, not-for-profit, generic drug company meant to address the shortages and high prices of lifesaving medicines. Civica will first focus on stabilizing the supply and lowering the cost of 14 hospital-administered generic drugs.

Civica is the brain-child of Dan Liljenquist, who is a disruptive innovator himself. In 2010 as a state senator Liljenquist sponsored legislation reforming the state’s pension system by moving it toward a modified 401(k) system. Many say he saved the state pension system.

Liljenquist is currently a senior vice president and chief strategy officer for Intermountain Healthcare. He is also the lead architect and board chair of Civica.

I must admit, I have a slight conflict of interest. My sister is an executive director at Civica, and has been raving about the company since she started a few months ago. I would otherwise have little idea about the momentous disruption about to happen.

Liljenquist brought in Heather Wall to join his team as the chief commercial officer to help build out the business model. Wall was recently named to Modern Healthcare’s Women Leaders “10 to Watch” List, which is a big deal in the health care industry.

Men and women in the C-suite improving an industry that affects us all. A true Utah disruptive innovation.

The Intermountain Healthcare News Release announced that “initial governing members of Civica Rx will include Catholic Health Initiatives, HCA Healthcare, Intermountain Healthcare, Mayo Clinic, Providence St. Joseph Health, SSM Health, and Trinity Health. These seven organizations, representing about 500 U.S. hospitals, will each provide leadership for the Civica Rx Board of Directors and will provide much of the initial capitalization for the company.”

Three major philanthropies are also involved, evidencing the company’s commitment to its not-for-profit, social welfare mission.

The CEO of Civica is Martin VanTrieste, the former chief quality officer for Amgen. Amazingly, VanTrieste will lead Civica without compensation.

That’s how much the leaders at Civica believe in its mission, and its ability to change the pharmaceutical industry for the better.

Parents in emergency rooms will be forever grateful.

Michelle Quist

Michelle Quist is a columnist for The Salt Lake Tribune