healthcare innovation
POSTED : December 11, 2015

Healthcare is everyone’s business—really big business. In 2015 U.S. spending on healthcare will top three trillion dollars—roughly $10,000 per capita or 18% of our total GDP.¹ Yet, globally, the U.S. healthcare system is notable for some of the highest healthcare costs and lowest performance. Healthcare is ripe for innovation, but the scope of the problems can be daunting.

In November, TEDMED 2015 took on these big issues by bringing together experts from around the world to inspire and expose the global health community to new ideas. PK and OHSU partnered to stream the talks live for nearly 30 healthcare professionals from Portland and Southwest Washington, as leaders in health, technology, policy, education and art shared the secrets that led to their breakthrough work.

Despite the current emphasis on digital health technologies, the most resounding presentations at TEDMED 2015 called on the community to be more human—focus on real patients, collaborate with key stakeholders, and empower front-line employees.

Focusing on patient needs solves more meaningful problems

After building a successful tenured career and serving as Dean of the University of Texas School of Public Health, Dr. Roberta Ness encountered a patient with a relatively simple infection who changed her career and perspective, forever. The patient’s infection was easy to diagnose and treat, but once the drug-addicted patient began to feel better she skipped out of the hospital to buy drugs and died as a result of her deeper illness. The treatment framework was built for the infection, but it didn’t address the true problem: the patient’s underlying addiction.

“I failed because I thought my medical toolbox could solve it all,” Dr. Ness told the TEDMED audience, noting that her training and expertise meant nothing without breaking through our assumptions about care and considering the patient’s true needs. This painful experience inspired her to re-evaluate how she could be truly useful to her patients, and as Vice President of Innovation at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth), she now advocates for brave, creative science that provides value to the community: “Science is about our community, not about our own careers. We must commit to greater boldness.”

Empathy inspires healthcare innovation

Pioneering AIDS researcher Anthony Fauci echoed this call to break down barriers between doctors and patients and find innovative solutions with patients. Fauci was initially surprised to find himself the focus of wild sit-ins held by AIDS activists who were frustrated and angry with the slow development of new AIDS treatments. One day, as police were descending on a protest at his university, it clicked: “Why are we arresting these men who are asking us to save their lives?”

Surprising everyone, Fauci brought some of these protestors into his office to talk. Seeing the choices patients were forced to make—treating their AIDS or their AIDS-related blindness but not both at the same time—he realized his expertise as a researcher was not enough.

For good science to happen, trials need to be rigorous and test for one variable at a time, which takes time. But these activist-patients were desperate for drugs that might help them immediately. By collaborating with them, Fauci and his team were able to build successful trials that added an innovative third-track option, giving patients access to the experimental drugs that could save their lives. “Once again conventional wisdom got it wrong and flexibility, got it right,” Fauci said.

Empowered frontline employees innovate today

While many TEDMED presenters called on the healthcare community to be fearless in looking for the next big innovation, Anna K. Young, co-founder of MakerNurse and lead researcher at the Little Devices lab at MIT, revealed the results of her national survey of nurses that showed innovative medical hacking is happening every day at nurses stations and in hospital supply closets. Young called on the TEDMED audience to build maker spaces in hospitals and to democratize innovation. “When nurses have the materials and space to make, healthcare is a better place,” she said.

Nurses are the human link between the clinical prescription of care and the successful, individual implementation of care plans. As many as 60% of nurses Young polled are building ad hoc solutions to meld patients’ immediate needs with the demands of their treatment.2 If nurses are already creating personalized care solutions that improve patient experience and reduce costs with tape and tongue depressors, what if we empowered them with professional tools to build and test truly elegant personalized solutions?

The digital future is enabling the best in humanized care

It’s easy to get lost when you’re looking to innovate solutions to the toughest healthcare challenges, and scientific progress take time. So often healthcare solutions get tied up in big thinking or bureaucracy—and innovative plans alone won’t help a patient today.

Finding the next health breakthrough requires the best science and creativity we have, but we shouldn’t ignore the small steps we can take today to bring our work closer to disruptive change. As the inspiring TEDMED 2015 program reminds us, focus on solving real patient problems, get the right people involved, and empower your teams to do good work. Because the future of medical innovation lies in our humanity—in our creativity, empathy and empowered collaboration.

¹ Health Spending in U.S. Topped $3 Trillion Last Year, Robert Pear

² Nurses as User-Innovators, Anna K. Young