Defining Healthcare Innovation

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 - Lyle Berkowitz, MD
Lyle Berkowitz, MD

One of the most common questions asked these days is “What is healthcare innovation?” Like the story of the blind men touching different sides of an elephant and each describing something separate, you will hear a wide variety of answers to this question based on whom you ask.

The following is a way to address the common questions on this topic so you can start organizing innovation in your mind and within your organization.

First, should the focus of innovation be on innovative information technologies, devices, workflow processes, care models or business models? Obviously, it can be any or all of the above. In the past, it is fair to say the majority of innovation work was in the devices arena since there was a clear financial return to the organization if a new device was widely adopted.  However, in a world changing to value-based reimbursement, we are seeing that process and care model innovations will likely be leading the charge, with information technology being an enabler of those innovations.

Second, how is an innovation project different than an improvement project? The short answer is that an improvement project is done to improve something, while an innovation project is done to blow up the current process or tool and create a new one. A classic example of this is polio: improvement experts would focus on designing a better iron lung, while innovation experts would consider how they might create a vaccine to stop this disease in the first place.

Third, is there a science or methodology to doing innovation well? Yes, similar to how improvement projects may use techniques like Lean and Six Sigma, the world of innovation relies on the concept of “Design Thinking” which has a different set of methodologies. The typical innovation project involves three main phases: discovery, incubation and acceleration. In the discovery phase, a problem is studied and observed and then various brainstorming techniques are used to create potential solutions. In the incubation stage, rapid cycle prototyping and piloting are done to quickly and cheaply find what fails and what works. In the acceleration phase, the successful pilot is spread using a variety of educational and other techniques.

Fourth, do all innovators need to use this formal science of innovation to succeed? It’s fair to say that many of the innovations we see in healthcare were done without formal innovation methods.  Rather, innovation started with a passionate individual or team trying to solve a problem with which they had a deep understanding. They would try various iterations until they got something that worked and then maybe spread it to others. However, the creation of an innovation culture and infrastructure to support a formal process of design thinking is likely to help identify more of these projects and make them more successful.

Fifth, what helps make up a successful healthcare innovation? First, it always starts with a passion for making something better plus some time and resources to focus on the project.  Second, it needs to have a real-world business model to keep the innovation sustainable. Third, the innovation needs to be well integrated into information technologies and clinical workflows so that it can be easily spread. Not surprisingly, it is this last part which is always one of the hardest and yet most important pieces. And it is why this intersection of information technology and innovation remains critical to the success of evolving our healthcare system to meet its potential.