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Identifying barriers to healthcare innovation

Healthcare organizations often grapple with barriers that hinder innovation. Here are strategies to pinpoint and overcome them.
By admin
Oct 20, 2023, 4:08 PM

Steve Blank is often quoted as saying, “Execution pays your salary; Innovation pays your pension.” But trying new things has become a rare practice in the current economic climate, with the gap between costs and payments rising like a glutted buzzard flying up from a battlefield. What’s worse, the path to innovation is littered with barriers that can trip up even the most promising ideas. Identifying this menu of mortal mistakes is becoming a key skill for healthcare innovators. We’ve compiled a list of blips that need to stay on your radar. 

Inherent innovation risk at different scales of implementation

Healthcare is a sector where high stakes and high risk make innovation at any scale problematic at best. Every new treatment, method, or device has the potential to cause adverse human impact, and those effects can be daunting for stakeholders considering investment in new strategies or technologies.  

The concept of “scales of implementation” isn’t new. However, it’s vital to incorporate it into the long-term planning of any pilot. Innovations might be designed for deployment at: 

  • The individual patient scale, such as artificial organs. 
  • The clinician scale, where we observe emerging technologies that mitigate redundant tasks, exemplified by Generative AI note-writing apps. 
  • The enterprise scale, where a shift to Business Research and Development leads innovation teams to focus on business model and value proposition canvases. Subsequently, they pivot to business experiments to validate new customer markets. 
  • Lastly, the system scale contemplates changes that might influence or reshape an entire corporation, be it regionally or internationally. 

It’s worth noting: as the scale increases, so does the risk. 

Overlooking existing solutions

In the quest for groundbreaking solutions, there’s a tendency to overlook or undervalue existing tools. Process improvement and employee training can sometimes offer reliable, though non-trivial, remedies. While some organizations do not have dedicated Learning and Development departments, there are many available resources for training in a variety of skills available online for HR departments to explore, and some of them offer limited trials of their courses. The Association for Talent Development have built an entire competence model that can help identify training and other performance improvement gaps in existing programs. Reinventing the wheel can be resource-intensive, and sometimes, the best solutions may already be within reach. 

Sidestepping quality improvement and patient safety teams

There’s an entire industry and academic discipline, with an increasing number of accredited programs focused on quality improvement (QI) and patient safety in healthcare. Innovation teams looking into solutions directly impacting clinicians would do well to maximize ways to involve these QI experts in the exploration and planning stages. Their data collection and analysis skills and tools, as well as utilization of Lean Six Sigma methodologies, brings great value to innovation efforts. 

Not building evidence through experiments

Before fully committing resources to a new solution, it’s imperative to conduct low-cost experiments. These help in establishing the desirability, feasibility, and viability of an idea. Diving headfirst without this preliminary evidence can lead to wasted investments and lost opportunities. Take a look at what the Innovation Engine at Atrium Health was able to accomplish by focusing on building evidence in these three areas, as revealed in their recent whitepaper on their “Design for Impact” model. 

Regulatory constraints

Consumer protection regulations like HIPAA ensure the confidentiality and security of health information; however, while such regulations are essential, they also add layers of complexity to the innovation process. Innovators must meticulously navigate these rules through rigorous workflow process design and execution, ensuring compliance while also maintaining agility. 

It’s even more challenging for startups aspiring to bring new apps or devices to market, because the FDA approval process can be lengthy and rigorous. This has tripped up more than one startup, especially international teams unfamiliar with all the regulatory hoops in the United States. While necessary for safety, these can deter many potential innovators. 

The 17-year research-to-bedside gap

A staggering statistic that has been repeated by various researchers and even suggested to be an understatement by some, is that it takes an average of 17 years for new drugs or devices to transition from research to bedside application. This prolonged timeframe can dampen enthusiasm, with the risk of solutions becoming obsolete before they even reach the patients. 

Organizational culture 

Healthcare organizations often exhibit cultures resistant to change. Traditions, hierarchies, and established practices can serve as barriers, with many institutions viewing innovation as a risk rather than an opportunity. The Strategyzer company’s High Impact Tools for Teams (2021) book has a number of interventions to help innovation groups within organizations identify “blockers” and suggests ways to build momentum and overcome them. 

Human barriers

The fear of failure, concern over career repercussions, and a natural inclination toward the status quo can stifle creativity and risk-taking. For innovation to flourish, these human frailties must be taken into account. Human resources departments have provisions for these kinds of challenges when they begin to impact individual performance, such as employee assistant programs (EAP). And, the spiritual care teams in hospitals are trained to alleviate the soul-weariness that is producing burnout in U.S. healthcare at many levels for clinicians and staff, as well as for patients; however, in many organizations, this can be an underutilized opportunity. 

Finding step-stones across the rain-swollen river of risk

Innovation in healthcare is not just a goal but a necessity. While the path is fraught with challenges, understanding and addressing these barriers can lead to transformative solutions that benefit both patients and providers. With the right strategies, combined with a relentless pursuit of excellence, the healthcare sector can unlock its full innovative potential. 

Building on extensive experience in the fields of journalism, media production, and learning design and development, John Marc Green’s newest adventure is serving as Director of CHIME Innovation. In this role, his ongoing conversations with CHIME Members and Partners provide insights and direction to serve their interests in a variety of ways, including digital healthcare innovation journalism, professional development events and program facilitation, and on-demand educational development through CHIME Innovation.

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