You’ve heard that necessity is the mother of invention. In our current COVID-19 reality, we might tweak that saying a bit to be, “necessity is the mother of transformation.” From supply chains to vaccine production, the Coronavirus pandemic is pushing the healthcare industry to find faster routes to success out of necessity. But this disruption is also providing opportunities for new technologies, startups, and innovation to thrive. Healthcare is adjusting and transforming at every level.
Interestingly, there are some parallels between the current healthcare innovation climate and another major worldwide shift: the tech and dotcom boom of the 1990s, where the explosion of internet-enabled tech produced a seismic shift in a variety of industries. In both, the cycle time between the development and implementation of ideas was slashed. There is, however, one major difference between the two: the stakes.
Entrepreneur and angel investor, David Chang, says, “the efficiency side of business happens [after] you figure out what the innovation is.” In other words, there’s more room for iteration in Silicon Valley startups before bringing a solution to scale. “Being a software person from the early days, I’ve had the benefit of working in industries where you can fail fast, and the cost of failing is not astronomical. However, in healthcare, someone can die.” As the industry learns lessons from its current state of flux, Chang says the question is this: “How do we employ techniques that have worked in other industries but do so in a place where the stakes are just enormous? The only thing I can draw from is my experience at PayPal, where we were working with people’s money. There were limited ways that we could implement new technologies. So, the notion of scaling only kicks in when you know what you’re doing and how the process works. So the challenge is, how do we introduce some of these innovations in ways that minimize the cycle time and maximize the benefit for patients?”
The High Stakes of Innovation
The high stakes of innovation aren’t new to healthcare. It’s why two decades after the dotcom boom ignited, we’re still struggling with a concept like interoperability. Shawna Butler, RN, MBA, Managing Director of the Exponential Medicine Conference and Community, says it’s not just that the stakes are high. It’s also that the challenge is even more complicated than a black-or-white, life-or-death issue. “There’s a whole gradation of outcomes. There’s harm to patients, there’s harm to staff, there’s harm to a system, there is emotional stress,” says Butler. “And we need to think about rapid industry iteration in a way that takes in the complexity of the situation, [which is that it’s not a polarity of life or death, but one of optimization. How do we optimize for the best outcomes?]”
But this concept of looking beyond the singular nature of mortality and embracing a whole-patient approach might be key. Butler continues, “One of the things that is so valuable right now in terms of problem-solving, is the interconnectedness. We’ve always talked about housing, the economy, transportation, our businesses, and our work-life—never have we seen it so rapidly and dramatically played out. How do you shelter in place when you don’t have a home? How do you keep your hands clean when there is no running water? How do you make sure children are fed when they’re not going to school?”
Pointing the question towards the whole patient concept, which is reflected in the growing focus on social determinants of health, provides not just a likely route to better outcomes. It also provides a potential roadmap for big challenges like digital transformation.
“[For example, one thing] we’ve learned here is that people are willing to use a messaging service,” says Chandana Fitzgerald. Her work as Chief Medical Officer of HealthXL gives her the perfect vantage point to see what’s working in the clinical space today. Fitzgerald says, “people are willing to use some virtual connection. Patients are willing to receive information by text or through a very simple, basic app. So how do we take that and normalize it? That’s when we can add a layer of sophistication, and build additional enhancements around the basic service. But we’ve established the concept right now, which is solving the acute problem right now with the simplest and most efficient solution. And then take that outside of this pandemic.”
“We need to think about rapid industry iteration in a way that takes in the complexity of the situation, [which is that it’s not a polarity of life or death, but one of optimization. How do we optimize for the best outcomes?]”
A Defining Moment
The healthcare industry has always strived to get the right procedure [or treatment] at the right place at the right time, but what COVID has proven, is that there are things that can be done in unexpected ways, at unexpected times. This is where we see necessity at work, from frontline nurses manufacturing their own powered air-purifying respirators to billionaires steering their resources to shortcut the production time of not-yet-approved vaccines.
It’s clear that COVID-19 will be one of, if not the, defining moments of a generation of frontline healthcare providers. And as we reach the other side of the exponential curve, as total new cases subside, ICU beds and respirators become less necessary, and masks eventually get left back in their drawers, there will be opportunities to grow. There will be chances to let things stick. There will be insights that can and must be embraced.
At the heart of it must be the patient. Not just the acute patients, but the chronic ones. Not just the insured, but the recently unemployed, underfunded, and uncovered. And not just the patient in the clinical setting, either. The patient is at home, at work, and at play. The patient in crisis, and the patient in “we’re-managing-this-disease” mode.
If we can manage this, then the inventions that have been birthed by the necessity of this pandemic will have the potential to transform not just healthcare, but to transform the care of millions of humans across the globe.
This conversation was a part of our series on Learning Together—Navigating COVID-19. Listen to the entire conversation in our podcast, or watch the recorded webinar here.
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