Is Healthcare IT Innovation Proof?

Jim Molpus, for HealthLeaders Media , April 14, 2011
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My return flight had not yet left Orlando before The Healthcare Information Management Systems Society was announcing that the annual convention had set an all-time record with 30,947 attendees, perhaps an understandable number given the caffeination given to healthcare IT by the federal government’s HITECH program.

While one might expect that the association would celebrate a record number as a sign of a robust industry, I can’t help but consider that “more” is not necessarily better. More seems to mean more applications, more software to fix interoperability issues among disparate and stubbornly proprietary clinical and financial systems, and more glossy tools to manage the inefficiency rather than disrupt the underlying flaws in healthcare delivery. I worry that healthcare itself has fought off so many bouts of innovation flu that it is now truly immune to a new technology that could break down the industry for its own survival.

What seems to pass for innovation these days is merely improvement. While there is benefit in making an existing product better, innovation requires a higher standard of renewing or altering the business model. Clayton Christensen, who coined the term “disruptive innovation,” wrote in The Innovator’s Prescription that “the healthcare industry is awash with new technologies—but the inherent nature of most is to sustain the current way of practicing medicine.”

It’s perhaps unfair—but not inaccurate—to say that the healthcare IT industry has a vested stake in healthcare inefficiency. The more confusing the data is, the more incoherent clinical alignment is, the more users need software to make sense of it. Healthcare IT, in theory, would seem to be a blue ocean for a new technology that makes the existing obsolete. In the hardware world, for example, we watch as every new offering from Apple is not merely an evolved product but an entirely new way of connecting to people and information. You don’t have to be a Facebook friend to see the cultural shift it caused. So, even if we back down from the lofty standards of revolutionary technology, could there be the opportunity within healthcare IT for a game changer that redirects the way healthcare is practiced?

The energy behind any truly disruptive innovation is alarmingly simple: It’s something people want a lot. They do not perceive value in what they can buy now and can’t wait for what is next.

I have my doubts that we will ever see a single technology
or even a tightly-closed batch of innovations come into the healthcare IT space that has enough impact the recode the industry. The healthcare customers they serve are too complex and contradictory for that. We are dealing with human beings and their healthcare, after all. So genuinely disruptive innovation may be too much to ask of the healthcare IT industry, especially when it lacks incentives to put itself out of business.


Jim Molpus is Leadership Programs Director of HealthLeaders Media.

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