While banks learned to share data well enough to make international ATM networks possible decades ago, patient data sharing is still crude, with doctors and hospitals using technologies that are barely on speaking terms.
Wal-Mart and other big-box retailers have such control of their suppliers that they can squeeze prices to rock bottom, but even giant hospital chains have comparatively little leverage with the pharmaceutical companies or big medical device makers.
And while just about any industry’s leaders can improve cash flow if they try, healthcare providers are fighting rising levels of uncollectible debt as patient health insurance deductibles grow. The same health insurers are also clamping down on reimbursement and demanding that providers deliver flat-rate bundles of care, a difficult feat for even deep-pocketed, successful players.
Do I think that startups will innovate the paradigms, disrupt the game or implement buzzwords — and perhaps solve some of these problems over time? Sure, that’s possible.
Do I think that startups will innovate the paradigms, disrupt the game or implement other cool buzzwords — and perhaps solve some of these problems over time? Sure, that’s possible, at least in increments. Healthcare data ventures are gradually enabling patient data sharing and helping providers bring in more revenue. Others are improving care coordination and helping clinicians work smarter. There’s a lot of incredibly smart people pouring their hearts into cleaning up the U.S. health mess.
But to really change how things are done in the U.S. healthcare industry, one too-seldom-used word has to take center stage.
The transformative power of “maybe”
Over the 25 years I’ve been following the healthcare business, I’ve come to know what the industry’s blindly-held beliefs are. They’ve included, depending on who’s talking, that Big Pharma will always have the upper hand, that single-payer health coverage will destroy industry innovation, that doctors are happier and more effective when they’re self-employed and so on.
Maybe there’s some deep truth behind these assertions. Perhaps not. Maybe there’s a way to buck conventional wisdom and in the process, save lives. Regardless, doubting that the alter kockers of the industry have all the answers is critical. Saying “maybe things can be changed” is an extremely potent exercise.
It may seem counter-intuitive to think that bureaucratic behemoths like giant hospital chains or pharmaceutical companies can be transformed, but the price will be staggering if we don’t give it a try.
I know this may seem too obvious to mention, but here goes: the healthcare industry isn’t going to make any fundamental changes until participants make a practice of living “in the question,” as a mentor of mine once put it. It may seem counter-intuitive to think that bureaucratic behemoths like giant hospital chains or pharmaceutical companies can be transformed, but the price will be staggering if we don’t give it a try.
What if “what if?” was ingrained in the culture of not only providers, but also key stakeholders like private health insurers, Medicare and Medicaid plans, nursing homes, home health agencies and the mental healthcare delivery system? How would the health system look in 10 years if “how about?” and “why not?”
None of this is intended to put down attempts to improve parts of the healthcare system. I have endless respect for big visionary efforts like the Institute for Healthcare Improvement’s 100,000 Lives initiative, for example. But these are by nature a sprint, while fixing healthcare is a long and trying marathon. And efforts by startups — even if they have cool high-tech headquarters with foosball and energy drinks — are by definition attacking a smaller definable issue, or they wouldn’t be focused enough to get funded. Their efforts are valuable, but not sufficient to produce fundamental changes.
No, I’d argue the real health system reforms will come when the healthcare industry is willing to challenge itself from top to bottom, inside and out. I could be dreaming, but maybe that will happen someday. I refuse to give up hope.
Anne Zieger is a healthcare marketing consultant with 25 years of industry experience. She helps small healthcare and health IT companies connect with their ideal audiences. Follow Anne at @ziegerhealth.