Disruptive Innovation — A Harmful Cliché in Healthcare?

Best practices, scalable, transformational — there's been a consistent flow of business buzzwords making their way into healthcare, and one of the latest is "disruptive innovation." But an article in New Republic questions how appropriate this term is not only for healthcare, but for social institutions on a grander scale.

"Sometimes buzzwords become so pervasive they're almost inaudible, which is when we need to start listening to them," wrote Judith Shulevitz, science editor for New Republic. She said the word, especially in the term "disruptive innovation," has made its way into most business conversations — but in a loosened way.

Disruptive innovation originally referred to a specific situation, primarily in the technology sector. When a company succeeded at making a "gizmo," it would commit to developing even better gizmos as the higher prices would return larger profits, according to the report. This would result in a gap in the market, into which newcomers would quickly move. The newcomers would make "stripped-down gizmos" and sell them to people who were unable to afford them before.

This incoming company would grow, as it found a new consumer base, whereas the senior company would shrink, due to its narrowed customer base. As a result, the newcomer overtakes the senior company, and the cycle repeats. That's what Clayton Christensen, a professor with Harvard Business School in Boston, had originally defined as disruptive innovation.

But Ms. Shulevitz said the term has moved away from the tech sector and into social institutions, such as healthcare, where it may be a "pernicious cliché." She also said the term is used in contexts other than that described above. "Disruptive is not slapped onto every act of cultural defiance of technical derring-do, whether it has to do with business or not," wrote Ms. Shulevitz.

Why might "disruptive innovation" be a harmful concept when applied to healthcare? Ms. Shulevitz said it is based on the assumption "that all public or nonprofit institutions are sclerotic and unable to cope with change," which leads to top leadership impelling change instead of letting it percolate from the bottom up. It describes a strategy now instead of an economic force, a "churning of businesses from start-ups to powerhouses to irrelevance or near-irrelevance."

Ms. Shulevitz listed a few other ways disruption doesn't quite apply to social institutions, particularly education. In one example of education reform, in which "change agents" from outside industries were brought into a California school district as superintendents, Ms. Shulevitz said the innovation can disrupt "not just the 'status quo,' but peoples' lives" as teachers are laid off, schools close, parents picket and school boards fight.

"Not all civil services need to be hyper-efficient and bargain-basement and in a state of permanent revolution, especially when private entities tasked with disrupting government operate largely outside public view," wrote Ms. Shulevitz. "What the institutions of a democracy should do is attend to their many disparate constituents as effectively and inclusively and openly as possible without getting creatively destroyed in the process."

More Articles on Disruptive Innovation:

7 Hospital and Health System CEOs: What Disruptive Innovation Means to Me
Disruptive Innovation in Healthcare: Examples From 3 Top Health Systems
5 Things the Most Extraordinary Hospital CEOs Do

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