By Tom Still
MADISON – One of Wisconsin’s seemingly genetic traits as a
state is its modesty about nearly all things, except the Green Bay Packers.
People here don’t often brag to outsiders about themselves or even their
friends and neighbors in Wisconsin.
While that’s appropriate if you’re Miss Manners, it’s also a
source of missed opportunities.
Whether or not one agrees politically with Paul Ryan or Scott
Walker, Wisconsin has just produced the next speaker of the U.S. House of
Representatives and a candidate (albeit short-lived) for president of the
United States. Whether or not one embraces the core concepts behind Social
Security, unemployment compensation or public kindergarten, those were policy
innovations born in Wisconsin.
As mid-sized, Midwest states go, Wisconsin has a lot to be
proud of… yet we too often forget our own talking points or prefer to argue
among ourselves rather than raise them.
Three events in the past week or so reminded me of
Wisconsin’s prominence, not just in the 167 years since it became a state but
today… especially in science, technology and how they are applied to benefit
society and the economy.
One such event was a gathering of journalists who cover
health care for national publications and broadcast operations, as well as some
of Wisconsin’s leading outlets. The group, which included reporters and editors
from the Los Angeles Times, National Public Radio, Modern Healthcare,
FiveThirtyEight and more, toured Wisconsin as part of a visit organized by the
Kaiser Media Fellowships. They learned the latest about Wisconsin’s approach to
public health care, electronic health records, telemedicine, rural health care
and more from experts at the Medical College of Wisconsin, Aurora Health Care,
Epic, the Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin, the Marshfield Clinic and state
My own role was to help explain Wisconsin’s historic
accomplishments in the life sciences, from the development of Vitamin A, B and
D therapies to medical imaging, and from stem cell research to the milk
butterfat test. That led to a discussion of today’s diverse landscape of
research centers and emerging companies in Wisconsin, which might seem like an
accident to outsiders unless they know the state’s scientific prowess didn’t
begin yesterday. It was built on the shoulders of others.
A prime example is the ongoing 90th anniversary
celebration of the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation. Founded in 1925 as an
independent patent and licensing office for the University of Wisconsin, WARF
began with the campus discovery that ultraviolet radiation can produce Vitamin
D in food. That led to Vitamin D milk and the virtual end to rickets, a disease
that once scourged millions of children. Today, WARF is the oldest academic
tech transfer organization of its kind in the United States, and has returned
more than $1 billion over time to the UW-Madison campus.
It is also a major reason why so many of the discoveries
launched in UW-Madison labs find their way into the marketplace, either through
intellectual property licenses or startup companies. In fact, a recent survey
by Pitchbook ranked the UW-Madison 16th in the world for
And when push comes to shove, as it did recently with the
$234-million patent infringement verdict against Apple, WARF has the deep
pockets necessary to defend the invention rights of faculty, staff and
Another example was a gathering of the Board of Visitors for
the UW-Madison’s Waisman Center, one of the world’s leading neuroscience
research and clinical settings. Dean Robert Golden, dean of the School of
Medicine and Public Health, described the complicated effort to bring together
separate entities that make up what is unofficially UW Health. That integration
will bring together a clunky, three-headed bureaucracy in a way that should
help patients and providers alike.
While that seems like a boring administrative exercise, it’s
really about continuing another Wisconsin health care tradition –
innovation. The HMO model pioneered in states such as Wisconsin is
becoming more of an industry norm with the movement toward ACOs under the
Affordable Care Act. Many Wisconsin health systems are early movers in changing
care delivery models and utilizing electronic health records. There is also a
history of emphasizing prevention over a free-for-service approach that
generally costs more.
“Wisconsin has always been on the cutting edge historically
when it comes to delivery of health care,” Golden said.
Indeed. Now all we need to do is keep telling others – and
ourselves – why such innovation matters and how it brings value to the state.