How Do You Innovate in Healthcare? Three Leaders Weigh In

More than 10 years ago, Harvard professor Regina E. Herzlinger published an article about why innovation in healthcare is so difficult to execute.

She covers all the factors and players that contribute to the innovation challenges that plague healthcare organizations: An uncertain and heavily regulated market; a consumer base that is skittish about spending more on their care; and risk-averse stakeholders with competing agendas and little appetite, or incentive, for compromise.

It’s surprising that today, 10 years later, healthcare still faces the same challenges. Despite major advancements in medical science and biotech, innovation in healthcare—and the experience that patients and consumers have with it—continues to lag behind the advances other industries are making.

But, is it really fair to compare healthcare to other industries? From consumers’ perspectives, yes. More and more, the lines are blurring when it comes to the experiences they expect, regardless of industry. A 2016 study by GE Healthcare Camden Group highlighted the problem: 81% of consumers said they are “unsatisfied” with their current experience with healthcare, and the consumers that are most satisfied are those who have the least to do with it.

Is innovation a big problem for healthcare? Or, is it simply that healthcare is so different—so nuanced—that it takes its own innovation path?

To find out, we spoke with three healthcare innovation leaders. We wanted to learn what’s working at their organizations, where the challenges are, and what it all means for healthcare’s future. Here’s what they said.

Healthcare is about improving people’s lives. Get the organization to buy into that mission.  

Technology is often intertwined with innovation. It’s therefore easy to assume that bringing consumer technology into healthcare checks the innovation box. But patients’ needs are multidimensional and emotional; their problems run deeper than what is outwardly observable. Simply applying technology to healthcare for technology’s sake is a superficial exercise.

According to Sam Gopal, Vice President of Product Management at Fresenius Medical Care North America, solving healthcare’s problems requires an understanding that challenges across verticals are not universal. Applying technologies to healthcare from the consumer retail or financial services sectors, for example, cannot be expected to adequately address complexities unique to a healthcare consumer’s journey and experience.

In the case of the Fresenius Kidney Care business unit, that patient experience is living with end-stage renal disease. These are chronically ill patients, many of whom are dealing with other health problems, like diabetes or hypertension, and need dialysis several times a week. For patients, their families, and their caretakers, it’s a challenging and often scary experience that can change one’s entire life perspective.

The key is to build empathy for that experience and get everyone in the company to believe why what they do is so valuable to so many. Or, as Gopal suggests, ensure the organization buys into caring about patients first, and make that a mission.

To ensure adoption, prioritize based on business and consumer needs.

Innovation can’t survive without adoption. And adoption is less likely when consumers are hesitant to spend more money on the already astronomical costs of healthcare. We see this play out in the U.S. in particular, where more than one-third of adults forgo medical care as a result of skyrocketing healthcare costs, according to 2016 research by the Commonwealth Fund.

Yuri Haverman, Director of Strategic Innovation for BD (Becton, Dickinson and Company), a global medical technology company, asks, “How do we co-create solutions with our customers that would see more rapid adoption in the marketplace?” Adoption, he believes, is the best benchmark for innovation; how rapidly and widely customers adopt innovations reflects how well thought out the innovation is.

Haverman also touches on the investment required to achieve innovation, particularly when the business value isn’t proven at the outset. Healthcare companies must develop simple and streamlined tools to—as Haverman puts it—find and act on the path of least resistance.

Carving that path means prioritizing based on both patient and consumer needs and business value. This establishes the evidence for what innovation will generate the most ROI and is the key to getting others on board.

Be bold, push boundaries, and focus on the purpose.

In order to develop innovations that will be adopted in the marketplace, healthcare companies must focus less on innovation and more on the humans they’re building innovations for. Innovators must therefore get close to the people whose problems they are trying to solve. This includes patients, as well as every stakeholder in the continuum of care.

Mike Rodgers, Director of Strategic Innovation at Wisconsin-based healthcare network Aurora Health Care cautions against innovating for innovation’s sake. Instead, he focuses on solving a problem or easing a patient burden. Ultimately, Rodgers says, it’s not the outcomes that drive innovation, but rather what is achievable for patients and communities.

For example, at Aurora, the innovation team has worked directly with caregivers to co-create new solutions to help improve patient care, such as “tele-triage.” This technology has reduced emergency room door-to-doctor time and helps patients in the emergency department get seen faster by a provider.

Above all, Rodgers believes that healthcare innovation should challenge legacy paradigms and assumptions about how organizations have operated in the past. As he advises, “If you don’t feel like you’re pushing the boundaries all the time, then you’re probably not pushing hard enough.”

So, is innovation in healthcare that different from that of other industries? According to these experts, yes. Is it any less attainable? No. As it always has been, innovation remains difficult. Which is why it requires strong leaders, new perspectives, and consumers themselves—that’s what will lead innovation, and healthier lives.

  • Kristin Masoud

    Kristin Masoud is a Vice President of Client Services at C Space Health, where she consults with top pharmaceutical and healthcare companies in the U.S. and EU. She is skilled in using insights to define and solve strategic business problems.

    • Jeff Morrill

      Jeff Morrill is the Senior Director Business Development & Strategy at C Space Health. Jeff has 25+ years of experience in driving brand innovation in a variety of industries including pharmaceutical, OTC, medical device, software, and consumer packaged goods.

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