Health Policy Forum

Becton Dickinson CEO Tom Polen discusses how AI can revolutionize health care

Polen discusses issues facing modern health care—and how AI can help—during Johns Hopkins Health Policy Forum

If you've been to a hospital, then you're familiar with the work of Tom Polen, Bus '03 (MBA). Polen is chairman, CEO, and president of Becton, Dickinson and Company (BD), which manufactures and sells more than 38 billion medical devices a year, which are then used by more than 90% of U.S. hospital patients.

"I pretty much guarantee that anyone watching this today has been touched by a BD product," said Polen during a Johns Hopkins Health Policy Forum event on Tuesday. "Any tube that you've ever had blood collected into or the needle in your arm, it's very, very likely a BD product. If you've ever had an injection or a vaccination, it's very likely a BD syringe."

With 43,000 products used in more than 190 countries, BD—and by extension Polen—have long been on the forefront of innovations in medical technology. During Tuesday's event, Polen discussed his experience running a multinational company with Carey Business School Dean Alex Triantis, venturing into conversations about artificial intelligence, issues in health care, and Polen's own personal story.

Polen was first introduced to the medical industry at age 13, when he witnessed his 35-year-old mother suffer an unexpected, fatal brain aneurysm.

"That experience really gave me a first-hand glance at health care," Polen said. "At that point I really committed myself to want to make a difference in improving health care."

Now, Polen finds himself facing all of health care's most pressing challenges, including global supply chain issues, geopolitical instability, and high costs for patients.

"To do good, we really need to make sure that our innovations are aligned with the needs of the local markets we participate in," Polen said. "Lower cost health care closer to where patients want to receive it. Those are big areas of investment for [BD]."

Polen also discussed the massive potential for artificial intelligence in the health care field, which he believes can help doctors with everything from counting pills to diagnosing patients. BD already sells several products that incorporate or are enabled with AI technology, including ones that can monitor narcotics abuse and identify bacteria.

"[BD is] really focused on capitalizing on the technology revolution that's happening right now. It's a tremendous opportunity," he said. "Getting the right diagnosis when AI is a companion to the physician, … it's going to improve outcomes."

From Polen's perspective, physicians spend far too much time on basic tasks like entering information into a computer. Automation could free up that time, decreasing physician burnout and giving patients more one-on-one attention from their doctors.

However, he also acknowledged that implementing new technology too quickly could be dangerous, both for the business and the consumer.

"When it comes to patients and AI, there certainly needs to be safeguards in place. That's why we don't want to rush to get AI out. We want to do it the right way," Polen said. "I'm really optimistic that we'll all get it figured out, and I already see a lot of great progress happening here."

Polen is the 10th expert to participate in the Health Policy Forum series, which launched in fall 2020 to highlight the university's engagement with key leaders on matters of health policy and health care. Previous events featured:

  • Anthony Fauci, former director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (October 2020)
  • Rochelle P. Walensky, Med '95 (MD), '98 (PGF), director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention during the height of the COVID pandemic (May 2021)
  • Robert M. Davis, chairman of the board and chief executive officer of Merck (October 2021)
  • Chiquita Brooks-LaSure, administrator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (January 2022)
  • Atul Gawande, assistant administrator of the Bureau for Global Health at the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID (April 2022)
  • Donna Shalala, former HHS secretary and member of Congress (June 2022)
  • Xavier Becerra, secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (December 2022)
  • Michelle Lujan Grisham, the 32nd governor of New Mexico (May 2023)
  • Sudip Parikh, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (July 2023)

The Health Policy Forum series is jointly hosted by the Bloomberg School of Public Health, the Carey Business School, the School of Nursing, and Johns Hopkins Medicine.