Exercising our bragging rights: Some reasons to feel good about Wisconsin

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 government.

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 venture-backed entrepreneurs.

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 students.

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. 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 fee-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.

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