Photo credit Erica Berger


To spur innovation in cancer treatment and healthcare, the industry needs to get the “elephant” out of the room.

That’s how Greg Simon, president of the Biden Cancer Initiative, described the subconscious bias that keeps healthcare professionals in their lanes, stops them from asking questions, and making change.


“Turn off your subconscious,” Simon said at the MM&M Transforming Healthcare conference on Thursday. “Apple. Steve Jobs. There was a time when it was just not possible for the recording industry to imagine selling things one song at a time. It’s the people who get past the elephant who make history.”


That’s what he’s trying to do at the Biden Cancer Initiative: change the healthcare system to be more collaborative and standardized to improve cancer treatments.


The system, he said, needs to behave more like the cancer cells it’s trying to fight.


“Cancer cells use blood supply, the nervous system; they have routes like tunnels in Vietnam or tunnels under Trump’s wall; they use everything, but we don’t,” he said. “When you do find something that works, all the delays start kicking in. Finally, we figure something out and it’s going to be 10 years before that makes it through the health system. We take knowledge and lock it up, whereas the cancer cell doesn’t delay anything; it’s moving all the time.”


To get around the lack of communication between medical centers, former Vice President Joe Biden had to fly his son’s medical record on a CD on Air Force Two to get it from one hospital to another, Simon said.

A cancer survivor himself, Simon served for nine months as the executive director of the White House Cancer Moonshot Task Force, starting in March 2016. He was also former Vice President Al Gore’s chief domestic policy adviser from 1993 to 1997. Simon also served as CEO of financial services company Poliwogg and as an SVP at Pfizer.

Simon also said that a major government research project came from a meeting where he told employees from different agencies to work with someone they had never collaborated with before. That resulted in a collaboration that used soldiers’ blood samples from the Defense Department to study early indicators of cancer for data being catalogued by IBM’s Watson.


Healthcare professionals also need to turn off their subconscious when communicating with patients. The Biden Cancer Initiative is doing this through the #CancerFierce campaign, through which patients are sharing how they turned their “fears into fierce” to empower others going through treatment.

“We tend to see things from our elephant’s point of view even when we’re dealing with patients with cancer,” Simon said. “The only way you can cast your net to the other side, which is their point of view, is to consciously stop what you’re doing and ask yourself, ‘How do I appear to people in bed, to people with an IV in and doing chemotherapy?’ One of the most important weapons we have at our disposal is empathy.”