Why Can’t Healthcare Innovate?

Whether viewed as paradox or conundrum, the healthcare industry’s relative inability to innovate has long been a source of both fascination and frustration. In the May 8, 2014 edition of the New England Journal of Medicine,  David A. Asch, M.D., M.B.A., Christian Terwiesch, Ph.D., Kevin B. Mahoney, B.A., and Roy Rosin, M.B.A. write about this phenomenon in Insourcing Healthcare Innovation.

Describing the understandable resistance of healthcare professionals to embrace problem-solving techniques from unrelated industries because the complexity of healthcare delivery is most often not well understood, those professionals are by definition usually most interested in exploring new ideas, new approaches and the pursuit of new knowledge. This apparent irony, the authors believe, might be effectively synchronized if a different approach could be taken to reconciling innovation with contextual understanding.

The approach they share is a four-stage design process they believe can achieve this reconciliation. The four stages include: contextual inquiry (understanding the processes currently in place); problem definition (ensuring the right problem has been understood and defined); divergence (exploring alternative approaches) and rapid validation (ability to move from theory to implementation).

If these sound familiar, it is because the general direction of proceeding from understanding where you are to achieving where you would like to be in an orderly fashion is the foundation of many approaches to strategic planning. So from that vantage there isn’t anything particularly revolutionary about the process described.

But understanding the core resistance to such processes – that the way in which healthcare practitioners are educated, trained and practice is frequently counterintuitive to innovation techniques successfully utilized in other industries – is an important distinction. What this translates into is making the requisite investment to understand the unique attributes and complexity of healthcare delivery – its distinctive product offerings, its highly dependent reliance upon personal relationships, its unbelievably complicated regulatory environment – as a necessary component of any planning effort.

It takes time and effort to build the needed understanding of the unique challenges that healthcare practitioners face. You have to ask probing questions and not hesitate to admit your lack of understanding: a fair balance of humility and curiosity can go a long way to building key relationships and creating the requisite knowledgebase necessary to innovate.

In other words, individual egos often create barriers to innovation processes that are attempted to be imported from other industries. More so than representing a different way of approaching innovation in healthcare, what this article does is reinforce a tried and true means of any planning effort: listen and learn before you lead.



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