Even though I have something like 10 (or is it 12?) friends on Facebook, I don’t really think I have that many friends. First off the younger people in the office tell me that 10 or 12 friends on Facebook is not all that many. And second I’m not even sure who those Facebook friends are, since I hardly ever go to my Facebook page (which was created years ago for me by an over-achieving high school intern from West Windsor-Plainsboro).
But I do have a few real friends and — while none of us has achieved any great fame — we are reaching a point where some of our kids have.
Two of those kids are in the news now, with stories worth telling.
Unless you went to Princeton University in the late 1960s you probably never heard of Paul Sittenfeld. But if you were in my class at Princeton, 1969, you knew him as the irrepressible campus politician, the guy who campaigned for class president as a freshman, won the office, and then — in an apparent attempt at team building — entered our class in an elephant race at the shore. Gauche. That freshman year ignominy notwithstanding, Sittenfeld went on to become a class leader during our alumni years, as well as a successful financial adviser and family man.
One of his kids, Curtis, went off to Vassar, transferred to Stanford, earned an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and then began to get some notice as a writer. Her first novel, “Prep,” about a fictional boarding school in New England, earned some highly favorable reviews, including one in the New York Times Review of Books, which said “Sittenfeld’s dialogue is so convincing that one wonders if she didn’t wear a wire under her hockey kilt.”
Sittenfeld’s subsequent novels, “The Man of My Dreams,” “American Wife” (with a fictional character who vaguely resembles former First Lady Laura Bush), and “Sisterland,” gained similar reviews and some bestseller status. Most recently Curtis Sittenfeld wrote “Eligible,” a modern retelling of Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” set in Cincinnati, Ohio.
The Austen remake is part of the Austen Project, a literary effort initiated by the HarperCollins publishers, in which six bestselling authors have written their own versions of one of Austen’s works. Sittenfeld’s, the fourth in the series, came out just last month and has already gained some favorable notices. O, Oprah’s magazine, said that “even the most ardent Austenite will soon find herself seduced.” People magazine, which made “Eligible” its book of the week, said that “Sittenfeld modernizes the classic in such a stylish, witty way you’d guess even Jane Austen would be pleased.”
Last week Sittenfeld read from the work and signed copies at a $75 a head fundraiser for the Princeton Public Library. The event attracted an audience of 150 at the Springdale Golf Club.
A few years ago I came up to Paul Sittenfeld, who now lives in Cincinnati, at a class event in Princeton. I pretended not to recognize him, noted his name, and then asked — in pretend awe — “Oh my gosh, are you any relation to Curtis Sittenfeld?” At the time I thought it was a lame joke, but now I’m feeling better about it.
Last week, while rooting around the Internet to write a column about another college classmate, Fox News personality John Stossel, and his first-person and libertarian observations about the healthcare system, I stumbled across a reference to Susannah Fox, chief technology officer for the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.
Susannah Fox, I immediately recognized, is the former Suzy Fox, daughter of longtime U.S. 1 writer Barbara Fox, who graduated from Princeton High School in 1988 and graduated from Wesleyan University in 1992 with a degree in anthropology.
After college she worked as a public policy researcher and eventually became the editor of U.S. News & World Report’s online operation, USNews.com. In 2000 Fox joined a subsidiary of the Pew Charitable Trust, and for the next 14 years led Pew Research Center’s health portfolio, according to her resume, “studying the cultural shifts taking place at the intersection of technology and health care.”
After a year serving as “entrepreneur in residence” at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation on College Road (a few miles from the home of her parents, Barbara and George), she was appointed CTO of the Department of Health and Human Services. Fox describes herself as an internet geologist and says “I help people navigate healthcare and technology.”
That sounds like a holistic, broad brush approach to the complex problem of getting health services as efficiently as possible to as many people as possible. So holistic, in fact, that some people in the entrenched healthcare bureaucracy (Stossel can tell you about that) raised their eyebrows at Fox’s appointment.
Last June, a week after her appointment, a trade journal called Healthcare IT News took note of Fox’s 14 years at the Pew Research Center, directing the organization’s “consumer-focused” health and technology research.
“Industry reaction has been somewhat muted. Initial feedback from Healthcare IT News readers has been positive, although some critics have questioned whether Fox is the right choice for the job. The third HHS CTO, Fox is not a computer scientist or an engineer, and has no formal information technology training. To some in the health IT industry, that stands out, given the CVs of her predecessors” — one an infrastructure architect and IT entrepreneur, another a health IT entrepreneur.
“Traditionally, a technology or healthcare industry CTO has a deep technical background, regardless of having moved to the strategy-focused C-suite. So, given the technology problems HHS has had in recent years — think the HealthCare.gov rollout debacle — should HHS Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell have put a savvy systems engineer or former health system CTO in the HHS CTO chair?”
That question was raised in 2015. Just last month Forbes magazine columnist and healthcare entrepreneur Dave Chase posted an article titled “Why An Anthropologist, Not A Technologist Was the Best Choice for HHS CTO Role.”
Chase noted that Fox’s selection “was a surprisingly perfect decision for the needs of the healthcare system. Whether conscious or not, it’s apparent she draws on the archaeology courses she mentions in her writing. Her predecessors, Todd Park and Bryan Sivak, did a terrific job of opening up government datasets and creating new models of innovation within the government. Fox is a natural pick to build off of that and extend into new areas.
“A key reason healthcare’s status quo is so terrible is that it’s an industry that operates in a tribal knowledge sharing model. It’s well known that despite lots of talk about evidence-based medicine, the U.S. healthcare system operates in an eminence-based model. That is, medical practice patterns are frequently based on whom one trained under rather than the latest science has to offer. The great news is that every structural solution needed to have healthcare reach its full potential has been invented, proven and modestly scaled. It’s simply a matter of taking the mindset of an anthropologist/archaeologist to uncover the solution.”
That’s a big challenge, and it’s comforting to know that there is a smart young person near the very top of the healthcare system who may be listening when old farts like Stossel and me complain about redundant paperwork and seemingly irrelevant tests. It’s comforting for me, at least. For Stossel, convinced that government is the cause of the problem rather than the solution, it might be less so.