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Donald Kemper

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When Donald Kemper, 62, founded Healthwise in 1975, the world was a very different place. But even then, there were rumblings of a crisis in health care. Kemper saw an opportunity to help­—not as a doctor, but by helping average people help themselves.

From that idea grew a nonprofit organization that is the nation's leading provider of health information—used by people more than 100 million times each year.

The company has also gained national recognition for being a great place to work. Employees can bring their dogs to the office and the dress code is casual. Kemper, a father of five, spoke to BW about health care in the United States and keeping employees happy—while his dog was curled up under his desk nearby.

Why start the company?

I was a child of the '60s, so I wanted to make the world a better place. I think, specifically, I had gotten, early on, focused on health care. I had a background in systems engineering and public health. I was trying to find a way to make improvements in the health-care system. One day, I went to a little talk, where the assistant secretary for Health, Education and Welfare, which is now [the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services], said the greatest untapped resource in health care was the patient. And I just started saying, "Well, how do we tap that resource?" I had sort of devoted my career to finding ways to help people do a better job of making health decisions, managing their own health.

Why Boise?

I was in the Bay Area, I went to Berkeley for the [Masters in Public Health], and I got job interviews from a lot of places, and I got this letter asking me to come to Boise for an interview. I landed at the airport and my prospective employer met me in his cowboy boots and his pickup truck and he had just come from meeting with the governor—the new Gov. Andrus at the time. And it just appeared to me that maybe you could get something done in a place like this. You could actually get to know the decision makers.

What makes Healthwise unique?

My vision was that if you gave people good information, they were smart enough to do a lot more for themselves than typically people were allowed to do. One of the first things we did was to interview about 200 people in the Treasure Valley. We just asked simple questions like, "What do you need to know to keep your family healthy? What do you need to know to get your money's worth when going to the doctor? Just tell us what you need in the way of information." And they gave us back real simple stuff like, "What do I do at home? When do I need to go to the doctor? When I go to the doctor, how to I prepare so that the doctor really meets my needs and I spend my money well?" So we started responding to those questions.

Ever been tempted to leave Boise?

Never. We're a not-for-profit organization, so nobody can buy us. We've had lots of interest from the big for-profit organizations, who would love to have our resource.

What's your take on health care?

In 1975, there were futurists who pointed that we were heading toward three big crises, and we're absolutely in the middle of them right now. It's the same crisis we've been talking about: cost. Health care costs are just so unreasonable in terms of the value you get.

Quality is the second issue. We know so much now about what works, but we don't do it, so there's a big gap between the science of medicine and the practice of medicine, and we're supposed to help close that gap. And the third crisis—which my Baby Boomer generation is going to be driving—is workforce shortages. We just don't have enough doctors and nurses to take care of people the way we do now.

What needs to happen to fill that gap?

We have three rules, pretty simplistic. Rule No. 1: Help people do as much for themselves as they can.

No. 2 is: Help people ask for the care they really need. In medicine over the last decade or two, it's been what's called evidence-based medicine, which is medicine based on clinical guidelines ... So rule No. 2 is to give the patients access to those guidelines so they can converse with their doctor about the care that they really need.

Rule No. 3 is the veto rule: Help people say "no" to care that's not likely to help them.

Do do see the crisis getting better?

So far, it's been getting worse. I'm an optimist, so I do think that it will get better, but I think that it requires some pretty significant paradigm shifts before it can get better. I think part of the problem is this Baby Boom population will add a significant demand on the health care system and there'll likely be more quality gaps and bigger cost crisis, etc. So unless people step up to implement our kind of stuff, where people can really do more for themselves at a lower cost, it's likely to get worse before it gets better.

What can people can do to stay healthy?

If you take 10,000 steps a day­—or as many as you can—if you eat five vegetable servings a day, you don't smoke and if you have healthy thoughts, you're likely to live a longer time, at a much lower health-care cost. That's really the basics. You don't have to do anything too exotic. Stay active. Eat real, whole foods in moderate amounts, and try not to put anything too harmful into your body.

Are doctors responsive to patients who come armed with information?

It's a real challenge. When the Internet was invented, we thought, "Ooo, this is going to be a perfect world. People can get this information any time." People started going to it, but when they'd go to the doctor, with the information, the doctor didn't have time to evaluate whether the information was any good or not. And a lot of the information wasn't good. So they only need to get burned one out of 50 times and they say, "Well, don't look at the Internet." What we've found is the best solution is when the physician prescribes information to the patient from the Internet.

Healthwise is known as a great place to work. Was that by design?

Really, from the start, I think we had a sense that if we were going to be talking about good health, we need to have a healthy environment. A mentally healthy environment as well a physically healthy environment. So from the early days of Healthwise, we focused on just doing the right thing

We have three basic principles of our culture; just respect, teamwork and do the right thing.

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