What’s Missing from Innovation?

What’s Missing from Innovation?

In the first six months of 2015, startup companies developing digital solutions for healthcare delivery raised $3.8 billion in the United States in venture capital. And that venture capital funding is a fraction of the research funds being spent by big firms on e-health (more than $12 billion).

That kind of money raises interesting questions about innovation in health, from questions about who benefits, to expectations that academic health centers themselves should be building these products.

I believe academic health centers can in fact lead the future of innovation.

But we as healthcare providers and educators must embrace three elements that I believe are the secret sauce for innovation. I’ve seen these three elements in my career from private practice obstetrics, to the academic missions of education and discovery, to earning an MBA to bridge gaps between health care and leadership practices seen in industry.

My three elements for the secret sauce of innovation in academic healthcare are three things we don’t teach in medical or nursing schools.

In 2014, both JAMA and the NEJM, the most distinguished journals in our field, published major articles predicting the “extinction” of academic health centers. If you cling to the “old math” of academic health centers, they are probably right. It’s institutions that embrace the future and develop an ecosystem of innovation that can create a “new math.” That new math has to include creative partnerships among academic centers, new partnerships with industry, innovation itself, and new relationships with our communities that build support and philanthropy.

I often cite Steve Jobs and Apple as the classic game changer – but we forget how much Microsoft and Dell had Apple close to failure. Before the iPod, it was hard to imagine today’s success. But instead of fighting the big firms, Steve Jobs changed the game with a little box that held 200 mp3s, and launched a mobile digital lifestyle we now take for granted.

Very few of us will invent a new way of interacting with the world. But there is a lesson for us in academic healthcare. Imagine an ideal health system 10 or 20 years away – and then plot backwards from there. What do we have to do today to achieve our 2025 ideal?

I enjoy quoting the Adidas advertisement that argued “Impossible is nothing. Impossible is potential.” Based on common predictions, academic healthcare is impossible. Which is fantastic – we have the potential to create what happens next.

Unfortunately, the bureaucratic ecosystem of an academic health center resists risk. We treat our “old math” revenue as sacred, and losing money as dangerous. But entrepreneurship by definition involves risk in search of return. It acknowledges that many great ideas won’t work when brought to market. It’s built on the adage, “fail fast.”

For academic health systems, we need to test our ideas fast. Fail fast. Learn success even faster. As Mike Tyson said, “Everyone has a plan … until they get punched in the mouth.” Academic health organizations are getting punched in the mouth, as Tyson says – the old plans aren’t working.

That’s why it’s time to embrace an optimistic future with creativity and risk – the ingredients for the secret sauce of innovation and the elements of a new and transformative role for academic health centers.