Innovation: What is it?

If it is one thing that the healthcare IT industry doesn’t lack, it is innovation – or it least innovation on the edges. A quick search on Google for health IT innovation challenges will serve you up over 23K hits. From Sanofi, to HHS, to Cigna and other stakeholders, there seems to be no lack of challenges, code-a-thons and the like but one has to wonder, do the results of any of these challenges actually end up in the hands of consumers and/or clinicians? If yes, and I have my doubts, the number that actually make it over that last threshold is exceedingly small.

That’s not to say these challenge grants do not serve a purpose. Such challenges do attract young developers into the healthcare sector where they can apply their well-honed skills to solve a problem. Maybe it will never be a commercial success, but it does expose them to the market, the needs therein and maybe they’ll stick around by joining one of the many HIT companies.

Beyond these challenges though, larger healthcare organizations (HCO) have their own internal centers of innovation. A couple of weeks back I had the opportunity to participate in a workshop at Kaiser-Permanente’s Garfield Innovation Center where 22 innovation center leaders gathered together to share their successes, challenges, best practices and ultimately forge relationships for the future. This event was organized by BluePrint Healthcare IT, of which I am on the Advisory Board.

Participating in a number of breakout sessions and conversing with various leaders of these innovation center leaders I came to the conclusion that the greatest impact these centers could have on their respective organizations was to all join together to identify  and measure lost opportunity costs that are the result of poor or insufficient interoperability across systems.

The healthcare industry remains a cottage industry with even the largest HCOs, such a Kaiser-Permanente or Partners Healthcare not having enough clout to drive interoperability across systems, be they hardware or software. If innovation centers were to rally together, develop a clear and consistent set of metrics to measure lost opportunity costs, in aggregate, they may be able to start driving change that will lead to more open systems.

Yes, it is a tall order and will require strong leadership but frankly, this industry is long overdue for tackling this issue. In the manufacturing sector, this challenge was address over a decade ago with the creation of the HART standard for device interoperability. Continua Health Alliance is trying to do something similar but still has a long ways to go. Won’t even begin talking about interoperability across disparate IT systems.

Yes, there seems to be some movement, but it is almost entirely regulatory-driven. What will it take for this industry to wake up and actually do something? Hard to say, but I would place my bets on these innovation centers, if they heed the call to collectively define metrics, to be very influential in the future.