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5 barriers to healthcare innovation — and how to avoid them

people looking for light bulb in maze|people looking for light bulb in maze

This article was written by Tim Berendt with support from TXI.

Barriers to healthcare innovation are baked right in to the American healthcare system. The never-ending siloing of disciplines and expertise along with HIPAA regulations and archaic legacy systems are all barriers to driving new innovations in patient experience.

Which is frustrating, because moving healthcare forward depends on innovation. Especially now.

COVID-19 has made it clear that healthcare needs to be able to pivot — and fast — to meet the rapidly changing needs of patients. The users need care, they need it now and they need to leave the process feeling better than when it started.

Yet healthcare is often cautious, with an old guard that’s slow to innovate. Insurance companies and hospital systems are not always built for rapid innovation and can be at odds with the way new actors seek to disrupt and improve the current healthcare landscape. Unlike many other industries in America, healthcare has dragged its feet when innovation is at play. But it doesn’t have to.

Why is innovation important in healthcare?

While user experience has become a paramount focus in almost every other industry, going to the doctor can still feel like taking a trip to the DMV. Everything moves slowly and nothing feels intuitive. So many of the best innovations in our current world make the user experience so smooth people don’t even notice it. But everyone notices a visit to the doctor — scheduling, costs, referrals — every element is a hurdle.

Give people a good experience, regardless of the industry, and you can’t keep them away — just look to most major tech companies for proof. A great user experience could be the way we ultimately build a system that keeps people healthy.

There are five barriers I’ve found in my own work again and again that stall the innovation we need to get us there.

Innovation theater looks (and sometimes even feels) like progress — and hides the real benefits of innovation in healthcare

True innovation should make executives uncomfortable. Upending how things have been done isn’t something the healthcare industry does regularly or easily. So if your innovation makes all the executives applaud instead of question you, there is a good chance you’re conducting innovation theater. It looks like something new and improved, but doesn’t do enough to change the underlying experience or solve the deep-rooted problem.

It can be tough to gain the trust of execs to let you follow through on your innovative idea or process. A strategy I’ve found is to start with a more simple solution in the space you are working. If that’s not possible, bring in outside success stories and examples, either analogous hard-hitting examples or the very leaders and organizations that have successfully pushed the boundaries of innovation. Sometimes a quick win, no matter how obvious it may be, can give you some slack with the very people who are eventually signing the checks.

Rigid healthcare hierarchy persists, dividing innovators from leaders

Siloing and hierarchy can be barriers to healthcare innovation in the same way they are in every other industry. Keeping the innovators of an organization away from the leaders of the company can interfere with the people who sign the checks buying in (literally) on something that could be revolutionary.

Making a concerted effort to bring the leaders together with the innovators is the only way to turn the idea into a reality. An innovation may work wonders for patients, but if it doesn’t square with the business side it won’t be sustainable.

Then there’s the “innovator’s paradox.” Bring in the business too early, and ideas can get shot down before they have an opportunity to develop into something spectacular. In the early stages, you need a certain amount of cover to burn through your bad ideas and find the ones that are worthwhile. That’s understandable, but it’s up to you to provide the necessary realism before you bring it to leadership. Just like business leaders shouldn’t be making decisions without patients in mind, innovators shouldn’t be making monumental decisions without the business in mind.

The perceived disadvantages of technology in healthcare weigh too heavy

Table XI has written before about developers swapping disruption for “do no harm”. I agree that healthcare technology must be safe for the end user first. However, I’ve also seen how that worry stifles new ideas or ways of improving current systems. The adage of do no harm when you are developing new technologies shouldn’t be used to keep the status quo.

The disadvantages of what technology can do maliciously sometimes hang like an albatross at tech companies. Necessary boundary pushing can be put on hold, but it doesn’t necessarily need to be. Don’t give up if the first answer is “no.” In fact, “no” can oftentimes be the driving force of why true innovators get out of bed in the morning.

Here are some ways to earn comfort with those that might be tough to convert:

  • If it’s a larger piece of emerging tech, show its success in other industries and even better, if there are success stories within your industry, use those.
  • Prove with real stories and data that your customer, whether it be a consumer, doctor, or other, has a desiring need to utilize the power of that technology.
  • Show that they are comfortable and trust that technology.

The healthcare user experience takes a backseat to unflashy features

Like other product designs, user experience is the best way to ensure you are making something of value. If the problem you are solving is best done with a phone call, building a flashy app won’t serve anyone in the long run. Utility comes first, always. I always like to push the boundaries of thought there. If a metric goal is to reduce call volume, shouldn’t we ask the question of should they be calling at all?

I had the luxury of an opportunity to attend Stanford’s D School bootcamp, and it feels like my life is forever changed from it. Their focus on human-centered design showed me how to live and breathe it in both life and work. It’s only when you see the opportunity to make everything human-centered that you can move past falling in love with solutions and falling in love with the problem.

Being driven by solving the problem and not the way you want to solve it can keep innovators from falling in love with their “baby”. Getting comfortable with detaching from your first few solutions can be tough but an important part of making sure you are building the best solution.

I have what I call “destroy days” with my team. This is where you dedicate thoughtful time to destroying your solution. Another way to push thinking forward is to have a “futuristic ideation” session. Think about the solution you are creating. What might the next iteration of that look like? Ask yourselves, is this really innovative or what might this look like in 2050? Explore all the possibilities using convergent, divergent, and convergent techniques.

The healthcare innovations that do make it to market don’t make it across industries and partners

If your solution isn’t being used by the people who make the industry run, your new innovation can be dead in the water short-term. You may be able to get things out to the market, but doctors and hospitals need to use it to make it valuable after launch. Trusted partnerships across industries can give you insider perspectives and vanguards for your innovation once it is ready to launch.

Partnerships also provide the validation for true innovation. If you’re hitting walls internally — either with leadership, resources or funding — external partners can provide the push you need. In my time leading an innovation garage, this was a stark reality. In one instance our gifted team had built roughly 15 prototypes in about 18 months, but leadership still wasn’t biting. Getting an extra $150,000 for a blockchain developer to work on a cryptocurrency gambling application for making healthier food choices isn’t easy in any industry or organization, regardless of your negotiating skills.

When you bring in partners though, you bring in champions — and occasionally opportunities to defray the costs. At their heart, certain partnerships as with MIT Hacking Medicine, IBM and IDEO CoLab were about radical collaboration both inside and outside the industry. These helped push boundaries that wouldn’t have been tested within our organization, and opened us up to perspectives from students, the energy sector, finance, all types of people and industries who could bring new magic to our process, and prove it made sense to someone out in the world.

Sustaining innovation in healthcare ultimately means making it unremarkable

Breaking down barriers to healthcare innovation come from making true innovation the only goal. If you have an “innovation arm” within your organization, you’ve only ensured that the best work will be siloed from everyone else. Innovation needs to be embedded and incented as part of your company culture to make sure it keeps improving.

If innovation isn’t the overall goal of everyone involved — chances are, you’ll never build the next great thing.

Published by TXI Healthcare in Digital Health

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