Healthcare remains one of the largest parts of the US economy, accounting for $2.5 trillion dollars, or about 17% of the GDP in 2009, which is estimated to rise to 25% of the GDP by 2025 (unless major changes are made).
So it is no surprise that mainstream business magazines will be writing more about healthcare innovation in the years to come. This month's issue of the Harvard Business Review (September, 2010) has an article entitled “Kaiser Permanente’s Innovation on the Front Lines”.
The first part of the article talks about how Kaiser funds an internal "Innovation Consultancy" group (led by good friend Chris McCarthy) whose focus is to develop "service line innovations" to improve the quality and efficiency of care, as discussed below:
The Innovation Consultancy takes on carefully chosen projects throughout Kaiser Permanente, which is based in Oakland, California, and serves the health needs of more than 8.6 million members in nine states and the District of Columbia. That’s a huge laboratory for tackling opportunities to improve health care practice. McCarthy and his colleagues pursue an expansive, service-focused version of innovation, not the conventional one that by definition excludes everything but new technologies or tangible products. Surprisingly little attention has yet been paid to this version. But, as Kaiser is discovering, the bucks are relatively few and the bang can be disproportionately big. Compared with costly, long-horizon, research-driven innovation, service-focused innovation can be done both rapidly and economically.
The second part of the article talks about how Kaiser’s Innovation Group helps lead the Innovation Learning Network (ILN) – a consortium of non-profit organizations who have banded together to learn about and share healthcare innovations. The innovation program I direct (the Szollosi Healthcare Innovation Program , aka SHIP) has been an active member of the ILN and was featured in this article. The author highlights our “Inflection Navigator” project as an example of the importance of open collaboration between institutions to create these “service line innovations” which focus on both increasing quality while also improving the patient experience. Here is what he wrote:
Lyle Berkowitz is a Chicago primary-care physician who also runs the Szollosi Healthcare Innovation Program, a charitable foundation that belongs to the Innovation Learning Network. Berkowitz has worked with the ILN on a process to help patients who’ve received a frightening diagnosis more easily negotiate the ensuing flurry of necessary activity: follow-up tests, visits to specialists, decision making about treatment and care. The process is called Inflection Navigator, because a diagnosis of cancer or serious cardiac disease, for example, presents the patient with a profound inflection point.
At such times many patients feel too overwhelmed to ask important questions or undertake important tasks. Inflection Navigator assigns to each patient a care coordinator, who explains, assists, sets up appointments, anticipates questions, and provides answers. The care coordinator sequences activities to minimize the inconvenience to patients and maximize the value of the time they spend with doctors. For example, a patient’s visit to a specialist might be scheduled only after the necessary tests have been done and the results can guide a recommendation. “It decreases the burden on both the patient and the doctor,” Berkowitz says.
It also bends the cost curve down. Care coordinators don’t have to be highly trained and heavily compensated. They depend on a database of medical protocols reflecting best practices for diagnostic procedures and the latest treatments for various diseases. This frees physicians to spend more time where their expertise makes the greatest difference. The process bends the learning curve, too. If, say, the standard treatment for atrial fibrillation changes, “the cool thing is I don’t have to go and try to educate all my doctors,” Berkowitz says. “Because it can take years to do that. All I have to do is change the protocol that’s already built into the system.” The physician makes the diagnosis and then hands the patient off to the care coordinator.
Democratizing Health Care
Lyle Berkowitz mans one corner of a small booth on the modest show floor of a conference and expo in Boston. The event is a joint production of the Innovation Learning Network and the Center for Integration of Medicine & Innovative Technology, a nonprofit consortium of Boston-area teaching hospitals and engineering schools. The proceedings might best be described as a festival for health care geeks. Berkowitz is busy explaining Inflection Navigator to interested attendees. The emphasis here is on sharing, not selling. No booth bunnies, blaring music, flashing lights, or branded tchotchkes, just conversation—enough conversation that superior listening skills are needed to hear above the din. The exhibitors have zeal in common. They want to make health care better, smarter, cheaper, and more accessible.
Chris McCarthy hovers and circulates. It’s the last day of the event, and he has the semirelaxed look of someone who has either dodged or dealt with whatever might have gone wrong and is finally surrendering to satisfaction. Sharing real-world evidence of what works—ideas, practices, protocols—exhilarates people like McCarthy and Berkowitz. To them, there’s nothing odd about 16 independent organizations coming together to improve more quickly than they could if they were left to themselves. It simply makes sense to spread improvement as broadly as possible. This is not the vision of health care that emerged in the grinding yet cartoonish debate leading up to the passage of what is now called Obamacare. It was easy then to imagine that the whole system was willfully committed to cruelty, greed, vanity, and ineptitude. Beyond the fray, however, creativity flourishes. McCarthy and others, by democratizing the methods of innovation, are democratizing health care, giving patients and non-physician caregivers a louder voice in designing the future.