No More Excuses: We Need Disruptive Innovation in Healthcare Now

disruptive innovationI’ve spent the better part of the last decade working in healthcare technology, and I still struggle to explain it to my mother. Analytics. Patient-centered care. Population health. Innovation. All buzzwords that make sense at a networking event and no sense at all to a patient. At first, somewhat demoralized by the blank stares, I gave up and started to say: I work in healthcare. But after explaining that I was not a nurse or a doctor one too many times, I looked for a better response. These days, I’m more likely to say, “I believe we can use technology to improve your health, making it better at a lower cost.”

There’s Value in Articulating a (Simple) Purpose

The beauty of simplifying my purpose – a purpose I know I share with most everyone who works in this industry—is that it says as much about what we do, as how we will do it. A mentor, and Health Catalyst co-founder, Steve Barlow, recently shared, “I believe we can learn something from each individual because our backgrounds and experiences are unique and varied.” Buzzwords and complexity and nuance, on the surface, highlight our expertise and experience. But I suspect they might also prevent us from finding that common ground, from acknowledging the successes of other industries, and even, at times, the humanity of the patient sitting right in front of us.

Let’s Learn from the Successes of Other Industries

We need disruptive innovation in healthcare, but first, we have to strip away the excuses for why healthcare is different. Some of the most transformative concepts that will shape healthcare are as far away as your phone is right now: which is to say, sitting right in front of you. The brilliance of your smartphone or or Facebook is not in the all-knowing vision of Steve Jobs or Jeff Bezos or Mark Zuckerberg. It’s in their platforms’ abilities to bring you a completely customized, personal experience, at scale. Moreover, it’s in acknowledging that they don’t have the answers, but rather their power is in connecting you to those who do – whether it’s the perfect app for wayfinding, the book you never knew you needed to read, or a long-lost friend.

Today, healthcare is remarkably and stubbornly closed. Full enterprise-wide EHR systems are designed by single companies. Physicians make decisions in isolation. My healthcare data is locked up to the point that it’s difficult for my physicians to access, never mind using it to push medicine forward. The companies and individuals that will move our industry forward the most in the next decade will apply these principles of openness to the healthcare sector. Some of my favorites include: SMART on FHIR, behind the creation of an open API; John Wilbanks and his efforts to pool health and genomic data, based on the premise that we have far more to gain from sharing data than siloing it; and any application of crowdsourcing to healthcare (note the particularly intriguing story about the success in offering just $6000 of prize money over two weeks to crowdsource a significantly better solution for genome sequence evaluations, a tough computational biology problem).

And Acknowledge Long-Standing Hurdles to Industry Disruption

As much as healthcare has to learn from other industries, we can’t neglect the complexities that make it so difficult to disrupt, the reality of which is reflected in the fact that healthcare is the problem that every major tech company wants to solve, but can’t seem to. Why do insights sit trapped in medical literature instead of making their way to the point of care? Why do we continue to pretend that more data is better than that single insight, in the right place and the right time? Why are patient-reported outcomes measures an afterthought? How long will we overlook social determinants of health—such as income and education—and their tremendous impact on outcomes? These problems aren’t tough in the same way as space exploration. They stare us down each and every day, but they are so mundane and so deeply entrenched in the fabric of our healthcare system, that it’s easy to forget about them (or at least I do).

The Future of Healthcare Technology

This is not to say that far-reaching innovation is not valuable. But when I look at the barriers preventing us from fundamentally improving care, they require not only creative problem-solving, but perhaps more importantly the courage to acknowledge and insist we can’t truly move forward until we break these barriers down.

When I say that I believe we can use technology to improve health, making it better at a lower cost, I don’t mean ten years from now. We know the challenges we need to solve, and more so now than ever before, we can leverage the tremendous body of collective experience available to us, not only in our colleagues, but in other industries, and perhaps most importantly in our patients, to move forward.

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