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Want to innovate in health care? Think like a start-up.

Aug 21 2014

How do you speed innovation in health care? Heavy regulations and privacy concerns add time from concept to delivery. Lots of players crowd the room. And the ultimate consumer is often so far removed from the design and development that their input rarely makes it into the equation. Innovation requires learning from failures, evaluating investments and adapting what one learns to future efforts.

Status quo in health care isn’t an option, however. Many other industries have seen new entrants completely disrupt the established model. Amazon changed the retail industry by taking the consumer experience – and consumer expectations – to new levels. More recently, Uber used smartphones to give travelers more convenience and control when they needed a ride. Established transport companies have been slow to respond, creating a gap between what is possible and what is accessible. Tesla’s direct-to-consumer sales model is disruptive and angering automotive dealers around the country. Those dealers are scrambling, appealing to state legislators to enact legislation to ban the direct sales in order to preserve their business model. Even if they are successful, it may be hard to fight the direct-to-consumer model forever.

So what are the lessons for health care?

Build. Measure. Learn. Innovate.

Brian Garcia, chief technology officer for Healthagen, an Aetna company, says the need for a better and faster approach requires health care companies to take lessons from software businesses and start-ups. They approach product development as a series of rapid iterations focused on quickly learning what works and what doesn’t.

“Most health care companies have traditionally followed a highly sequenced product development method with the belief that the more you plan up front, the more risk you can take out of the process,” says Garcia. “That isn’t the case. Up-front planning actually increases risk.

“In the process of invention, there is the inevitability of failure. When you’re doing all the planning up front, you can’t identify where all the failure points might be until months down the road in production,” he explains.

Using methodologies advanced by Eric Ries, the pioneer of the lean startup process, product development is broken into smaller batches, tested with customers at multiple stages, and refined along the way. Garcia said the health care industry is latching onto this, prompted in part by a surge in start-ups as well as other competitors that were not previously in health care.

Design for the customer

Garcia says the other critical lesson is to get closer to the customer. The number of health technologies and apps has exploded. According to IMSHealth in an October 2013 report, more than 43,000 health-related apps are on U.S. Apple iTunes app store alone. Most are not used.

The reason? Garcia believes it is often because the developers are treating technology as the “front man.”

As an example, he pointed to how technology can come between doctor-patient interactions. During visits, doctors are often looking down at tablets or at a computer rather than looking at the patient.

“If we focus on the user first, the technology will naturally fade into the background,” he says.

At the end of the day, the key to solving health care challenges is staying close to those that will use the product. “The goal is to design a learning system where we understand their needs and adapt quickly,” Garcia says.