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5 barriers to healthcare innovation — and how to avoid them

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. Innovation in healthcare is critical to improving patient experience and driving progress in the industry.

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.

Innovation is crucial in healthcare because it leads to better outcomes for patients, more efficient use of resources, and ultimately, a healthier population. By continuously improving the tools and techniques used to diagnose and treat illnesses, healthcare providers can offer more effective and personalized care to patients. Innovation can also lead to new therapies, treatments, and cures for diseases that were previously untreatable or difficult to manage. Moreover, healthcare innovation can increase access to care, reduce costs, and improve patient outcomes. It can also help to address health disparities and improve health equity, as new technologies and treatments can be made more accessible to underserved populations.

There are five barriers I’ve found in my own work again and again that stall the innovation we need to get us there. Overcoming these barriers requires a shift in mindset and approach from all stakeholders involved.

Innovation theater

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

Innovation theater is the act of pretending to innovate without actually achieving any meaningful progress. This type of behavior often happens in large organizations where innovation is seen as a buzzword or a way to gain publicity. However, innovation theater can be damaging to the healthcare industry because it can distract from real progress.

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

Rigid healthcare hierarchies can be a significant barrier to innovation. In many organizations, innovators are separated from the leaders, making it challenging to gain support for new ideas. This separation can be particularly challenging in healthcare, where innovation can have a significant impact on patient care.

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.

To avoid this barrier, innovators need to make a concerted effort to bring leaders together with innovators. This collaboration can help ensure that ideas are aligned with business goals and are sustainable in the long term. 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. Finding the right balance can help ensure that ideas are given the necessary time and resources to develop into something worthwhile.

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 innovator's paradox is a common challenge that many entrepreneurs and innovators face when trying to bring new ideas to fruition. Innovators need to be both visionary and pragmatic. They must have a strong sense of purpose and a passion for creating something new and meaningful, but they must also be grounded in reality and able to translate their ideas into practical solutions that can deliver value to the business and its customers.

Ultimately, the key to overcoming the innovator's paradox is to cultivate a culture of innovation that values experimentation, risk-taking, and learning from failures, while also promoting collaboration, communication, and alignment with the business's strategic objectives. By working closely with business leaders, innovators can ensure that their ideas are aligned with the company's vision and goals, and that they have the necessary support and resources to turn their ideas into reality.

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The perceived disadvantages of technology in healthcare weigh too heavy

The perceived disadvantages of technology can be a significant barrier to innovation in healthcare. TXI 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.

While it is essential to prioritize patient safety, a fear of technology can prevent organizations from exploring new ideas and improving existing systems. To avoid this barrier, innovators need to build trust with stakeholders by demonstrating the benefits of technology. This can be achieved by showing real success stories from other industries or within the healthcare industry. Innovators also need to demonstrate that technology is safe and can improve patient care. By doing so, they can earn the confidence of stakeholders and pave the way for further innovation.

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

Ignoring the user experience can be a significant barrier to healthcare innovation. In many cases, organizations focus on building flashy apps or technologies without considering whether they are solving real problems for patients. This approach can lead to a mismatch between what patients need and what organizations are delivering.

To avoid this barrier, innovators need to prioritize the user experience. This means starting with a clear understanding of the problem that needs to be solved and focusing on delivering real solutions that improve patient experience. Innovators should also be willing to challenge traditional assumptions about healthcare and explore new ways of delivering care.

Another way to overcome this barrier is to involve users in the design process from the very beginning. Conducting user research and usability testing can help identify pain points and opportunities for improvement in the user experience. Incorporating user feedback into the design process can ensure that the final product meets the needs and expectations of the end user. Additionally, using design thinking methodologies can help teams empathize with the end user and design solutions that truly address their needs. By prioritizing user experience and involving users in the design process, healthcare innovators can create products and services that truly make a difference in the lives of patients and providers.

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. This approach means that innovation becomes part of everyone's job, and everyone is encouraged to contribute their ideas, no matter how small. Creating a culture of innovation involves fostering an environment where risk-taking is encouraged, celebrating experimentation, and providing the resources and support needed for innovation to flourish.

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

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Published by Digital Health at TXI in Digital Health

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