Tissue issue: Explaining the curious connection between the coronavirus pandemic and toilet paper shortages.

How did the pandemic drive consumers to purchase reams and reams of toilet paper?

Just after coronavirus cases started appearing in Europe and North America, two things began to happen.  One was restrictions on people’s movements — soon leading to lockdowns nearly everywhere.

The other was a run on toilet paper that seemed to go on for months and months.

While other necessities suffered temporary product shortages as well, toilet paper in particular seemed to be affected the most. And as its disappearance from the store shelves became widely reported, the shortage began to take on near mythic proportions.

Photos of barren shelves were plastered all over the news and shared on social media – even giving the rise to a flourishing resale market in which the price of TP skyrocketed.  

It’s little wonder that at the same time, thefts of toilet paper began to be reported across the globe.

Surveys conducted among consumers in North America and Europe found more than a few people admitting that they had begun hoarding toilet paper – more than 17% of North Americans and nearly 14% of Europeans acknowledging so.

Just what is the correlation between a health crisis like COVID-19 and the sudden unavailability of a product like TP, of all things?

It’s the kind of question that no doubt intrigues researchers in the field of consumer behavior.  In January, a team of five analysts in Spain published a review of the available research on the topic.  Their reporting suggests that several factors were likely at work – some more significant than others.  Here is a synopsis of what they reported:

Potential Factor #1:  Diarrhea

As coronavirus cases began to rise, more people were experiencing increased gastrointestinal symptoms and diarrhea — either induced by stress or by the COVID-19 itself.  However, medical studies suggest that only about 13% of people who contract COVID have significant diarrhea as one of the symptoms or side effects.  That 13% is actually a relatively low proportion of COVID patients, and therefore can’t explain much of the global surge in toilet paper purchases.  Verdict:  Unlikely factor.

Potential Factor #2:  Actual Product Shortages

A more likely explanation for the run on toilet paper is that the product was merely one of numerous necessities that consumers went out to purchase in abundance as lockdowns began to take effect around the world.  But whereas items like canned foods were able to be more readily restocked, toilet paper wasn’t.  In this scenario, supply chains weren’t prepared for the sudden the shift in demand from commercial-quality to residential-quality toilet paper, paper towels and such.  As a result, it took longer for production to retool and meet the increased demand.  Verdict:  Somewhat more likely factor.

Potential Factor #3:  Fear — Magnified by the Media

As the news media began to report on empty shelves, toilet paper buying patterns that had initially been in line with those seen for other sought-after goods now reached frenzied proportions.  The “FOMO factor” (fear of missing out) increased bulk buying and hoarding behaviors even more.

Adding to the fevered environment was an additional factor, as explained by Dr. Brian Cook, who is a member of the Disaster Risk Reduction initiative at Australia’s University of Melbourne:

“Stocking up on toilet paper is … a relatively cheap action, and people like to think that they are ‘doing something’ when they feel at risk.”

The TP buying craze has been seen before.  Toilet paper shortages were recorded during the political crisis in Venezuela in 2013 … following the terror attacks on the Twin Towers in New York City 2001 … and even as far back as the 1973 OPEC oil crisis.

I guess the bottom line is this: When the sh*t hits the fan, it’s the toilet paper that wipes out …

“You are what you wear.”

Research from Duke University suggests that people who are dressed up buy more and spend more than their casually dressed counterparts.

Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, people have been “dressing down” more than ever.  But recent consumer research suggests that for buying more and spending more, retailers do much better when their customers are dressing sharp.

Researchers at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business analyzed the shopping habits of two different groups of consumers.  Smartly dressed shoppers — as in wearing dresses or blazers — put more items in their carts and spent more money compared to casual dressers (as in wearing T-shirts and flip-flops).

The difference among the two groups’ shopping behaviors were significant, too:  18% more items purchased and 6% more money spent by the sharp dressers.

The Duke University research findings were written up in a paper titled “The Aesthetics We Wear: How Attire Influences What We Buy,” which was published in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research.

According to Keisha Cutright, a Duke University professor of marketing and a co-author of the report, when people are dressed up they tend to have more social confidence, which in turn reduces the anxiety people may feel about making certain purchasing decisions:

“We focus on how your dress affects your own perceptions.  When you’re dressed formally, you believe that people are looking at you more favorably and they believe you are more competent.  If you feel competent, you can buy whatever you want without worrying what other people think, or whether they will be judging you negatively.”

Parallel Duke research also found that retailers can actually prompt would-be shoppers to wear nicer outfits when shopping at their stores by featuring nicely dressed models in their advertising.  “So, there are some practical implications from the research for retailers,” Cutright says.

How about you? What sort of dynamics are in play regarding how you’re dressed and what you buy as a result?  Is there a correlation between what you’re wearing and how you’re shopping?  Please share your observations with other readers here.

The ripple effects — good and bad — of the COVID-19 pandemic on our health and wellness.

One of the lessons that the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us is that the advent of an unexpected medical danger can have ripple effects that go well-beyond just the specific health matters at hand. 

One that has been well-covered in the news is how the precautions most people are taking to avoid contracting the coronavirus are driving flu cases down to levels never before seen.  This chart pretty much says it all:But as it turns out, there are some other, perhaps more unanticipated consequences — ones that have positive and negative aspects.

We’re reminded of this in the form of several newly published reports.  One report comes from Altria, the largest U.S. producer of tobacco products.  According to Altria, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic appears to be responsible — at least in part — to halting a decades-long steady decline in cigarette usage among Americans.

While the trend hasn’t actually gone in reverse, Altria does report that in 2020, the cigarette industry’s unit sales in the U.S. were flat as compared to 2019. 

That’s a big shift from the 5.5% annual decline in usage that was observed between 2018 and 2019.

As for the reasons behind such a sudden shift in consumer behavior, the Altria report touches on several probable factors, including:

  • People had more opportunities to smoke because of spending more time at home rather than the office.
  • More disposable income available for smokes because of less money being spent on commuting, travel and entertainment expenses.
  • The heretofore-robust growth of substitute products (e-cigarettes) was reversed in response to reports about unexplained lung illnesses among e-cigarette users, the ban on flavored vaping products, plus increased taxes on e-cigarette products.
  • A more acute sense of personal stress and anxiety in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

The newest trends in cigarette usage can’t be good for seeing a return to the decline in death rates that are tied to smoking.  Unfortunately, those rates remain high: The effects of smoking account for more than 480,000 deaths in the United States each year.

On the other hand, there are positive ripple effects related to the coronavirus pandemic, too.  As it turns out, the medical innovations that have been part of the worldwide response to the pandemic are delivering parallel positive benefits in the broader war on cancer. 

One piece of evidence is the success of newly developed mRNA vaccines for combating the COVID-19 virus.  Those same vaccines are now being repurposed to battle various forms of cancerous tumors.

Naturally, any such development on the cancer treatment front won’t be a quick “silver bullet” solution in the decades-long battle to defeat cancer.  But a report released in January 2021 by the American Cancer Society points to the promising success that such new initiatives are having. 

The key stats are telling:  American cancer death rates have dropped steadily since 1991 – with an overall decrease of ~31% in the death rate through 2018 that was capped by a one-year decline of ~2.5% observed in 2017-18 alone. 

The ACS report summarizes:

“An estimated 3.2 million cancer deaths have been averted from 1991 through 2018 due to reductions in smoking, earlier [cancer] detection, and improvements in treatment, which are reflected in long-term declines in mortality for the four leading cancers: lung, breast, colorectal and prostate.”

Not surprisingly, lung cancer is the biggest driver of the death rate decline. Whereas a dozen years ago the overall survival rate for non-small cell lung cancer was just 34%, in 2015 it was 42% (and it’s higher today).

Looking forward, even as we eagerly anticipated the large-scale rollout of COVID-19 vaccinations which can’t come soon enough, we can also be happy in the hope that the emerging science will deliver a parallel positive impact on cancer treatments – so long as we can convince people not to regress in their smoking habits.

What lifestyle adjustments – positive or negative – have you or people you know made over the past year?  Beyond the risks of the coronavirus itself, what other new health challenges have you or they faced in its wake?  Please share your perspectives with other readers here. 

Education alert: The unintended consequences of schools’ response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

This past week, Forbes magazine published a feature article authored by its senior education editor, Susan Adams, concerning a $12 billion company that’s benefited mightily from the distance learning measures hastily put in place for secondary and college-level students in the wave of the coronavirus pandemic lockdowns.

The company in question is Chegg, an education technology firm which offers a $14.95 monthly subscription that provides a lifeline for students who are looking for answers to exam questions. 

Headquartered in California, Chegg actually looks more like a company based in India, where it accesses a stable of more than 70,000 people with advanced science, math, engineering and IT degrees.   These freelancers are available online continuously, supplying subscribers from around the world with step-by-step answers to their test-related questions.  And the answers are typically provided in a matter of mere minutes. 

Reportedly, Chegg’s database contains answers on some 46 million textbook and exam question topics, and it’s the driving force behind the company’s Chegg Study subscription service.

Of course everyone knows where the real action is …

Chegg Study is also the main revenue stream of the company — by far.  Other services such as resources for improving writing and math skills as well as bibliography-creation software seem more like window-dressing. 

It brings to mind certain video shops of yesteryear which would display a small selection of benign movie “standards” for sale at the front of the premises, fig-leafing the store’s true purpose.

The Forbes article interviewed more than 50 college students who are subscribers to Chegg Study.  The students interviewed represent a cross-section of institutions ranging from small state schools to top private universities. 

Nearly every one of the students interviewed admitted that they use Chegg Study to cheat on tests. 

To view Chegg’s financial numbers is to notice a direct correlation between the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic — when education went virtual practically overnight — and a spike in revenue growth at the company.  Quarterly revenues over 2019 have leapt 70% or more, and Chegg’s shares are up nearly 350% since the education lockdowns began in mid-March. 

The company is now valued at a cool $12 billion.

Corporate spokespeople deny that Chegg is taking advantage of the current situation to juice its sales and profits.  Company president Dan Rosensweig contends that Chegg is the equivalent of an “asynchronous, always-on tutor,” ready to help students with detailed answers to problems. 

On-demand education, if you will.  Or a student version of the GE Answer Center.

But the “new reality” of virtual education and Chegg’s role within it brings up a number of concerns.  As cheating becomes easier to do and hence more prevalent (human nature being what it is), what happens to the value of a high school or college degree?  Can degree credentials mean as much as they did before?

It depends.  For some jobs where the ability to find accurate information quickly is important, finding someone who mastered the function of “chegging” while as a student might actually be the better candidate for the position.  On the other hand, if the position requires a person who will uphold the highest ethical standards at all times, that same candidate would be the wrong one for the job.

Ultimately, it’s the students themselves who will likely be the victims long-term, because if they “skated on through” during their school years and didn’t actually learn the material, that will soon become evident when they go into the workforce.  “Find out now … or find out later,” one might say.

Looking at the other side of the coin, how can schools make sure that they’re monitoring and mitigating cheating effectively, such that employers can be confident the comparative value of a degree from one school versus that of another? 

There are a variety of “remote proctoring” surveillance tools like Examity and Honorlock that can lock students’ web browsers and observe them visually through their laptop cameras.  While on paper these look like effective (albeit costly) ways to crack down on online cheating, the degree of their actual success is debatable. 

Some respondents in the Forbes student interviews reported that they “chegg” their online tests regardless of whether or not they’re being proctored, citing the belief that if they aren’t using the school’s own Wi-Fi connection, it’s impossible to detect the cheating activity. 

Furthermore, anecdotal reports from teachers in my home state of Maryland state that on test-taking days, often there are large spikes in the number of students who mysteriously run into “problems” with their Zoom connections – and hence are unable to be observed while taking their tests.

But the issue goes even further – to the very heart of the notion of virtual learning itself and whether distance learning is ill-serving young people.  Some students have found it hugely challenging to be skillful learners in the “virtual” world.  A business colleague of mine shared one such example with me:

“Someone who I respect greatly and consider to be an honorable man has accepted his son’s cheating, since he went from being an ‘A’-student to failing because he couldn’t handle online learning.  He was a visual and auditory learner and without those two things, the information wouldn’t stick. 

The student and his dad talked about the 12 consecutive chapters he was supposed to be reading.  When the father was satisfied with his son’s understanding of the material, he allowed his son to do whatever was necessary to get through the tests.”

When the situation gets to the point that students’ own parents are going along with the cheating, it means that we have an issue that goes way beyond one particular company that’s taking advantage of the dislocations in the educational arena while laughing all the way to the bank.  At its root, the problem is virtual learning and the way it’s being structured. 

Of course, the coronavirus crisis built quickly and took many colleges and school systems by surprise — so the fact that jury-rigged ways to deal with the virtual learning have fallen well-short expectations is completely understandable.  But the shortcomings have become so glaringly obvious so quickly, new creative thinking is obviously needed – and fast.

If you have thoughts or ideas about steps the educational field could be taking to solve this dilemma, please share them with other readers here.

In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, where are trade shows headed?

For those of us in marketing and sales – particularly involved in the commercial market segments – the COVID-19 pandemic brought the function of trade show marketing to a screeching halt, as one event after another in 2020 was either canceled outright or “re-imagined” as a digital-only program.

The impact on the convention business has been severe — and it’s had ripple effects throughout the wider market as well.  As Tori Barnes, head of public affairs and policy at the U.S. Travel Association, has noted:

“When a large convention or event is happening, the entire city is involved.  Whole downtowns have been revitalized due to the meeting and events business, and they’ve really struggled this past year.”

But now that COVID vaccines have been approved and are beginning to be distributed, the question is, “What’s the road back for trade shows?”  Will they return to the “old normal,” or are they forever changed?

Those issues were studied recently by the Center for Exhibition Industry Research (CEIR), which posed a group of questions to ~350 executives of exhibition-organizing companies.  The results of the CEIR research suggest that the future of trade shows will likely be a hybrid model of digital and in-person event activities — often as part of the same program.

According to the CEIR findings, “education” was the biggest driver of virtual events run during 2020 – and by a big margin.  When asked to cite the most important reason organizers think that professionals attended their virtual events, the top three responses were:

  • Education for professional or personal development:  ~33%
  • To keep up-to-date with industry trends:  ~11%
  • To fulfill professional certification requirements:  ~10%

Collectively representing ~54% of the responses, it would seem that all three of these reasons lend themselves equally well to digital events as to in-person meetings.  Indeed, in some cases virtual events might be preferable in the sense that digital presentations can be viewed multiple times, if desired, for educational purposes.

By contrast, three other reasons were cited that are generally better-realized through in-person trade shows or conferences.  But collectively they were mentioned far less frequently by the respondents:

  • To see or experience new technology and/or new products:  ~9%
  • Professional networking:  ~8%
  • The ability to engage with experts:  4%

From the vantage point of their experience in 2020, only a small minority of the exhibiting-organizing company respondents in the CEIR survey research reported that they plan to discontinue virtual-event efforts once the pandemic subsides (just 22%). 

A much larger percentage – nearly 70% — anticipate that virtual/digital activities will remain (or become) a bigger component of their events going forward — in other words, hybrid events. 

That would seem to be the best solution all-around for future trade show success.  Offering more digital options within a larger event program will enable people who aren’t able to participate in-person due to schedule conflicts, or simply because of the unease or hassle of traveling, to actually do so.

The experience of 2020’s virtual events also suggest that there are some notable differences in terms of event size and duration — namely, virtual events tend to be smaller in size and shorter in duration than similar in-person events:

  • The average session length of an in-person education event was 70 minutes, compared to under 60 minutes for a like digital event.

  • The average number of hours per day for an in-person event was eight, versus just six for a virtual gathering.

Another finding of interest from the CEIR research pertains to which industry segments the exhibition-organizing personnel consider most open to embracing digital event tools.  More than four in five respondents felt that virtual offerings in the finance/insurance/real estate segments will become an ever-increasing component of physical events in the future.  It was nearly as high – 74% — for events happening in the field of education.

No doubt, we’ll be learning more about the changing dynamics of trade shows over the coming 12- to 24-month period.  As we await the “larger perspective” to emerge, what are your thoughts about how your own personal participation in trade shows will change? Will those changes be temporary or permanent? Please share your perspectives with other readers here.

In its legal altercation with poultry processor Wayne Farms, LinkedIn gets its wings clipped.

Ignoring complaints of a fake LinkedIn profile turned out to be a costly miscalculation.

We hear a lot about fake Facebook profiles and fake Twitter accounts.  We don’t hear so much about fake LinkedIn accounts – but they can be just as problematic. 

In fact, it may be that the potential financial implications of faux LinkedIn accounts are sometimes more consequential.  The revelation last week that LinkedIn has settled a lawsuit brought by Wayne Farms, a multi-billion dollar poultry company with 13 U.S. processing facilities, helps paint the picture.

The facts of the case are interesting.  In the summer of 2020, a sales manager for Wayne Farms noticed that someone had created a fake LinkedIn profile of him.  The sales manager also determined pretty quickly that the faux persona was using the profile to reach out to customers and set up deals. 

More specifically, the imposter was attempting to engage one customer in the United States and another in Italy in phony product purchase transactions.

As David Brezina, a Chicago-based attorney representing Wayne Farms, explained, “LinkedIn was used to make more credible some scams that were basically to buy a container load of product.  It was a great deal – but you had to submit 20% down.” 

“The fraudster was looking to collect $5,000 or $10,000 from potential customers of my client upfront,” Brezina continued.  “LinkedIn was a valuable tool to make the scam more credible.”

What did LinkedIn do to address the problem?  It took the correct action – at first.  Contacted by the Wayne Farms sales manager about the fake profile, the social platform took down the offending account.

But barely a month later another fake profile of the same sales manager reappeared on LinkedIn.  Wayne Farms promptly submitted two notifications to LinkedIn asking for the account to be removed once again.

This time around, LinkedIn’s response was … crickets. 

It was only after Wayne Farms filed a federal lawsuit against LinkedIn in early December, seeking compensatory damages for trademark counterfeiting, federal trademark infringement and reputational harm, that the fake profile was removed.

David Brezina (Ladas & Parry LLP)

Regarding LinkedIn’s failure to act in the second occurrence, Brezina pointed out, “You need to be responsible; you need to have procedures where if fraud is being committed … victims can contact you.” 

In this case, LinkedIn chose to ignore such entreaties – or the request got hung up in its internal bureaucracy.  Either way, it turned out to be a costly blunder for the social platform.  This past week, LinkedIn settled the Wayne Farms lawsuit out of court.  Financial terms of the settlement are confidential, but you can be sure that the costs involved are more than merely symbolic.

Interestingly, during the discovery phase of the lawsuit, LinkedIn let it be known that it restricted more than two million fake accounts in just a six-month period last year, so this isn’t an isolated occurrence.

But what it also means is that users of LinkedIn need to be as vigilant in policing that platform as they are with any other social media outlet.  That revelation came as a bit of a surprise to me, frankly.

What about you?  Have you or someone you know ever been the victim of any monkey business or questionable activity pertaining to your LinkedIn profile?  If so, please share your experiences with other readers here.

The Music of Your (Work) Life

Well, yes and no …

I’ve been in business long enough that I can remember a time when it was pretty commonplace for the radio to be playing in the background in offices and other work settings.  Sometimes the result of doing so was a bit distracting – most especially during radio program commercial breaks, but also the general distraction of hearing the radio announcers.

These days, the only workplace where I hear the radio playing is at the office of my dentist.  Perhaps they think their patients don’t have any choice but to sit captive in the operatory chair, so it doesn’t matter if the “irritation quotient” is high or not.

On the other hand, one of the things workers can do today is craft their own streaming-service playlists, filled with the kind of music that they prefer to hear.  And with so many people working from home in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, it’s little surprise that playlists have become increasingly popular.

One question we might ask is if the music we listen to while working helps with our productivity, or hinders it.

It’s a topic that’s of interest to companies such as OnBuy.  This UK-based online marketplace has conducted a study of ~3,000 people, enlisting them to complete ten short tasks with music playing in the background to find out how many of the tasks they could complete when various different songs were playing.

The research subjects worked their tasks while hearing a range of different songs – and as it turns out, there were significant differences in productivity based on the songs that were playing.

According to the OnBuy study, the most productive music to work or study by were these five songs:

  • My Love (Sia)
  • Real Love (Tom Odell)
  • I Wanna Be Yours (Arctic Monkey)
  • Secret Garden (Bruce Springsteen)
  • Don’t Worry, Be Happy (Bobbie McFerrin)
Don’t Worry, Be Productive: Bobby McFerrin

The research participants were able to complete an average of six of the ten assigned tasks within the duration of those five songs.

At the other end of the scale, these songs were determined to be poor for productivity, with participants able to complete just two of the assigned tasks, on average, while they were playing:

  • Dancing With Myself (Billy Idol)
  • Roar (Katy Perry)
The Pointer Sisters: Everyone’s excited, but productivity takes a beating.

And at the bottom of the barrel? Of the songs tested, I’m So Excited by the Pointer Sisters was the worst one for productivity.

More generally, the OnBuy study discovered an inverse correlation between a song’s beats per minute (BPM) and productivity levels:  The higher the BPM, the less productive people were in completing their assigned tasks.

This is probably why I’m much more productive when listening to music that has practically no BPM associated with it – whether it’s the ambient music of Brian Eno, piano preludes by Claude Debussy, or the nature music of Frederick Delius.

Of course, when it comes to work productivity, nothing beats complete silence.  That’s the surefire way to be the most productive – but it isn’t nearly as nice, is it?

How about you?  What kind of music appeals to you — and works for you — while working?  Please share your thoughts with other readers here.

Remembering international advertising executive Shirley Young (1935-2020).

The World War II immigrant from war-torn Asia became a pacesetting executive in the New York ad world before shifting to the corporate sphere.

As we begin a New Year, let’s pause for a brief moment to remember Shirley Young, the successful New York ad executive who passed away in the waning days of 2020.  She’s a person whose life story is as fascinating as it is inspiring.

Ms. Young may be best-remembered as a noted advertising executive whose career included a quarter century at Grey Advertising.  As president of Grey’s strategic marketing division, one of Young’s clients was General Motors, a company she later joined to help spearhead GM’s strategic development initiatives in China. 

Ms. Young moved in the worlds of business in the West and Far East with equal ease and poise.  To help understand how she could do so, looking at her early life helps explain her success. 

Born in Shanghai in 1935, Shirley Young was the daughter of Chinese diplomat Clarence Kuangson Young.  The family moved to Paris in the late 1930s and later to Manila, where her father had been appointed consul general at the Chinese embassy there.

In interviews later in life, Ms. Young would recount how soldiers had came to their Manila home when the city was overrun by the invading Japanese army.  Her diplomat father was arrested — and executed, as she later found out.  The occupiers sequestered little Shirley, her mother and her two sisters in a communal living space with other family members of jailed Chinese diplomats.  There, Shirley and her siblings helped raise pigs, chickens and ducks to survive wartime conditions in cramped quarters that were frequently left without electricity and basic water supply. 

Speaking of these early experiences, “I learned that whatever the circumstances, you can be happy,” Young told journalist Bill Moyers in a 2003 interview.

Following the Second World War, Shirley Young and her family emigrated to New York City, where her mother worked for the United Nations and later married another Chinese diplomat — this one representing the Chinese Nationalist government in Taiwan. 

Graduating from Wellesley College in 1955, Shirley had few concrete plans for the future.  Indeed, she considered herself more of a dreamer than a person whose heart was set on a business career.  But taking the advice of a friend to explore the emerging field of market research where she might be able to combine her natural curiosity about the world with gainful employment, after numerous job application rejections she finally landed an entry-level position in the field.

Learning the basics of market research at several New York employers, Ms. Young then joined Grey Advertising in 1959 where she rose steadily in the ranks.  As a senior-level woman in the then-male dominated world of advertising agencies, Young stood out.  In so doing during a time when major companies were just beginning to show interest in more diversified corporate direction, it’s little surprise that Young would be invited to join the boards of directors of several major companies.

Young’s field experience and keen strategic acumen drew the eye of General Motors, a Grey Advertising client that would go on to hire her as vice president of GM’s consumer market development department in 1988. It was an unusual move for a company that up to then had typically promoted senior managers from within the company’s own ranks.  Her key role at General Motors was in formulating and implementing the GM’s strategic business initiatives in China.

In the years following her retirement, Ms. Young slowed down — but only a little.  She founded and chaired the Committee of 100, an organization that seeks to propagate friendly relations between the United States and China.  Related to those Chinese/U.S. endeavors, a statement made by Ms. Young in 2018 was this memorable quote:

“We have to work together.  Given the intertwined relationship and globalization, it’s ridiculous to think we cannot work together.”

[These days, the jury may be out on that statement; the next few years will probably tell us if her view has actually carried the day …]

Looking back on Shirley Young’s life and career, it’s hard not to be impressed by her pluck and spirit.  A child born of privilege but who soon lost it all, she could easily have retreated into a world of “what might have been.”  Instead, she pieced together a new life that turned out to be “bigger and better” than she could have ever imagined in her early years.

One other facet of Ms. Young’s life and work is worth noting:  her love of the “high arts.”  She was a notable supporter of such musicians as the cellist Yo-Yo Ma, composer Tan Dun and pianist Lang Lang, and was also a tireless promoter of artistic exchanges between the United States and China.  One could certainly say that she was a significant catalyst in the burgeoning interest in Western classical music that has developed inside China over the past several decades. 

Acknowledging her contribution to the arts, Lang Lang’s organization wrote this epitaph about Shirley Young following her death:

“The Lang Lang Music Foundation mourns the passing of our director Shirley Young, a remarkable woman, patron of the arts, and a dear friend … she was unique and can never be forgotten.”

I think that sentiment is spot-on.

Saying “goodbye and good riddance” to 2020 with a bit of humor …

The year 2020 is one that many people would just as soon see well-behind us, and I’m sure that everyone hopes that 2021 will mark a major improvement, too.

This year has also generated more than its share of gallows humor – proving yet again that “making light of misery” has its place in social discourse.

Along those lines, several friends/colleagues who live and work in Europe and Asia have shared a bit of that humor, and it definitely elicited a chuckle from me. 

So with credit to these two gents, here are “Ten Things to Ponder” as 2020 draws to a close:

  • The dumbest thing I bought this year was a 2020 planner.
  • 2019:  Stay away from negative people.  2020:  Stay away from positive people.
  • The world has turned upside down:  Old folks are sneaking out of the house and their kids are yelling at them to stay indoors.
  • This morning I saw a neighbor talking to her cat.  It was obvious she thought her cat understood her.  Back home I told the dog – we had a good laugh.
  • Every few days, try your jeans on just to make sure they fit.  Sweatpants will have you believing that all’s right with the world.
  • Does anyone know if we can take showers yet, or should we just keep washing our hands?
  • We never thought the comment “I wouldn’t touch them with a 10-ft. pole” would become a national policy …
  • I really need to practice social distancing – from the fridge.
  • I hope the weather is good tomorrow for my trip to the backyard.  I am tired of the living room.
  • Never in a million years could I have imagined I would walk up to a bank teller while wearing a mask and ask for money.

What are your “imponderables” for 2020?  Feel free to share them with other readers here.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the future of telehealth services.

There isn’t a whole lot of good news that has resulted from the coronavirus pandemic, but we can look to the healthcare industry and see several positive outcomes.  One is the pace at which new vaccines have been developed, trialed and approved for use.  Considering how successful that initiative has been, It’s likely that we’ll never go back to the “snail’s pace” approach of yore in developing new pharmaceutical products — and few people are likely to complain about that.

Another positive development is the wholesale adoption of telehealth services.  Until the pandemic, telehealth was taking its own time being adopted by medical practitioners and patients, and it was little more than a novelty in many quarters. 

That’s all changed.  Telehealth has been a huge bright spot during the coronavirus crisis.  As regulator eased rules inhibiting its use, access to telehealth — and its affordability — have dramatically improved in a time when in-person doctor visits have proven impractical if not impossible.

Speaking personally, I have engaged in several telehealth sessions with my primary care physician since March of this year.  My experience has been nothing but positive — and so much more convenient than hoofing it to the doctor’s office while feeling under the weather.

Also important to the continuing adoption of telehealth services is how Medicare and other insurance programs cover and reimburse providers for telehealth services, and we can only hope that those newfound flexibilities won’t disappear once the public health emergency subsides.

Beyond the possible resurgence of regulations, there is another risk to the long-term viability of providing telehealth services to patients, and it comes in the form of “patent trolls.”  Those are the obnoxious non-practicing entities (NPEs) that scoop up obscure patents and then proceed to sue other companies that are unwittingly using the patented technology.

In nearly every case, the NPEs in question add no value whatsoever to the marketplace, but seek instead to line their own pockets by leveraging obscure patents to sue for infringement and seek massive financial settlements from the “offending” manufacturers just to keep their products in the marketplace.

Telehealth service providers are especially vulnerable to such extortion attempts since their products (including the smart devices that support them) involve highly complex operating systems utilizing hundreds or even thousands of patents. 

At the moment, two particularly egregious patent infringement cases have been filed with the International Trade Commission, the quasi-judicial federal international body that investigates and makes determinations about unfair trade practices.  Both lawsuits emanate from Neodron, an NPE based in Ireland which purchased a number of patents related to certain touchscreen features.  Immediately upon gaining ownership of the patents, Neodron proceed to file suit against Apple, Microsoft, Amazon and other tech companies that are in the laptop, tablet and smartphone manufacturing business.

A Neodron victory, if it happens, could block access to as many as 90% of the devices Americans rely on to access mobile health services, thereby crippling the platforms needed for telehealth functionality.

Unfortunately, the ITC has a history of siding with the patent trolls.  In fact, in more than 750 investigations conducted over the past 15 years, the ITC has never refused to issue an exclusion order based on the public interest.  One would think that telehealth functionality would qualify as being in the public interest, but the track record so far doesn’t bode particularly well for such a ruling.

Recognizing the threat, the U.S. Congress is now getting in on the act.  Bipartisan legislation has been introduced in the House of Representatives that would curtail the ability of NPEs to bring ITC complaints.  Let’s see if that legislation will actually become law — and in so doing help telehealth services maintain their forward momentum in changing the way that healthcare is delivered to patients.