Re-thinking innovation on the front lines of healthcare

Key thoughts:
• Innovation is critical to competitive advantage
• Physicians as “knowledge- workers” play vital roles in health system innovation
• Building a culture of physician initiative requires investment, leadership and rewards

The well-known business axiom that low price, high customer service and innovation all have a cost certainly applies to healthcare, and you generally cannot have all three. Large organizations all require internal innovation to stay competitive, but this can be especially challenging when there are limited resources and a trend towards conforming to standardized care. Hospitals and health systems are further complicated by physician incentives that favor productivity over innovation, and the willingness of physicians to accept change mandated from administration.

Innovation needs to go beyond improving methods to lower costs and standardize quality. It is also not just keeping pace with technological advances in the industry, such as a new surgical robot. True innovation involves pushing the limits of our primary mission, such as 1) translational research, 2) interdisciplinary disease-based programs, 3) firming up processes with care pathways, 4) building resources for the patient’s entire cycle of care, and 5) forging new levels of coordination within the system. For community hospitals, innovation can involve ways to keep pace with the constantly evolving best practice.

Physicians and nurses as “knowledge- workers” play vital roles in health system innovation, and are at the very core of our patient-centered mission. We uniquely understand the needs calling for innovation, along with the obstacles to implementation. Looking past the immediate needs for low price and customer service, by investing in innovation will both engage their spirit and fuel modernization.

This column is part of a series devoted to clarifying and enhancing the physician-health system relationship. Dr. Ken Altman is Chief of Otolaryngology at Baylor St. Luke’s Medical Center in Houston, TX. He is also Secretary/Treasurer-Elect of the American Academy of Otolaryngology – HNS, and past-President of the American Laryngological Association.

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