News Feature | June 7, 2013

What Drives Healthcare Innovation?

Source: Health IT Outcomes
John Oncea

By John Oncea, Digital Editorial Director

Healthcare Innovation

Follow John on Twitter: @buck25

Innovation is needed to advance healthcare programs, but what is needed to stimulate innovation?

In an op-ed column for the New York Times, Thomas Friedman acknowledges the debate surrounding the Affordable Care Act but focuses on an unexpected benefit of it, writing, “There is one area where the law already appears to be surprising on the upside. And that is the number of health care information start-ups it’s spurring. This is a big deal.”

Friedman lists Dr. Jen Brull, a family medicine specialist in Plainville, KS, among those doctors who have benefited, saying Brull “was certain she had been alerting her relevant patients to have colorectal cancer screening — until she looked at the data in her new electronic health care system and discovered that only 43% of those who should be getting the screening had done so. She improved it to 90% by installing alerts in her electronic health records, and this led to the early detection of cancer in three patients — and early surgery that saved these patients’ lives and also substantial health care expense.”

Friedman writes that the Obama administration credits incentives in the recovery act with "nearly a tripling since 2008 of electronic records installed by office-based physicians, and a quadrupling by hospitals.” Records like the ones Brull used to save three patient’s lives.

Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius referenced Friedman’s column in her blog post highlighting advances in healthcare on innovation. Sebelius wrote, “Data that support medical decision-making and collaboration, dovetailing with new tools in the Affordable Care Act, are spurring the innovation necessary to deliver improved health care for more people at affordable prices.” She concludes by referencing the May launch of the Health Care Innovation Awards, “a nearly $1 billion initiative that will fund awards and evaluation to build on the Obama administration’s work to transform the health care system by delivering better care and lowering costs.”

Sebelius is quoted as saying, “These awards will continue our work to drive down health care costs while providing high quality care to all Americans, and I’m excited to see the innovative ideas these applicants will bring to the table. Organizations from the public and private sectors throughout the country are finding creative solutions to our health care system challenges and these awards will continue to stimulate these ideas.”

Support of the Obama administration’s commitment to the need for enabling innovation in healthcare is widespread with HIMSS having recently held a virtual conference exploring the opportunities and challenges it presents. The conference covered topics ranging from “Imagining Innovation across Healthcare: Five Inspirational Healthcare Examples” to “Learning from Others: Innovation beyond Healthcare.”

Healthcare Informatics reported on the HIMSS event, quoting presenter Rasu Shrestha, M.D., radiologist at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC), as saying, "It’s necessary for people not to be blinded by buzzwords such as ACO, big data, vendor-neutral archive, and cloud-based. 'When we see vendors using these words, that doesn’t mean they’re being innovative; it’s not true innovation.'" Shrestha went on to say he "believes any healthcare organization can position itself to take advantage of a whole new level of opportunity" by asking the right questions, including where to innovate, how to innovate, with whom to partner, and when to innovate. Shrestha also said, "At the end of the day, there are three pillars of innovation, - good science, smart technology, and new methods of care."

But achieving innovation takes more than billion-dollar initiatives and conferences. Many groups have turned to contests to kick start the next wave of healthcare technology, including:

  • MIDEGO, which held a photo contest to celebrate and reward the efforts of global health leaders;
  • Health2.0, which ran a contest calling for innovators to make use of the data API and integrate the TXT4Tots message library into a new or existing platform;
  • Health Data Consortium, which ran a code-a-thon in which selected teams competed to build an app, tool, or product that could be directly used by primary care providers and/or their office staff to improve the quality of care they deliver towards the total health of their patients;
  • and, once again, Health2.0 which is currently running the Blue Button Co-Design Challenge, a contest looking to build support for Blue Button Plus, expand understanding of how patients want to use their clinical data and what products they want to see developed, and increase the number of fully enabled, Blue Button Plus tools and applications in areas of high priority for patients.

One other contest, conducted by, is asking readers for help in recognizing the 100 most influential people in healthcare. Readers are presented with a list of 300 nominees – many of whom are responsible for healthcare innovations - and asked to vote for 5 with the contest ending June 14, 2013. Winners will be announced later this summer.

A book could be written detailing the ways innovation is improving the quality of healthcare and, in fact one has. According to Becker’s Hospital Review, Lyle Berkowitz, MD, associate chief medical officer of innovation for Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago and Chris McCarthy, innovation specialist with Kaiser Permanente collected some of the most successful stories of innovation in health IT and documented them in their book Innovation With Information Technologies in Healthcare.

Becker’s interviewed Berkowitz and quotes him as saying, “Our healthcare system is not sustainable, and we certainly have to become more innovative. IT is a tool, but it is a really important and powerful tool that will help us spread innovation more efficiently and effectively. We need to think about how we can do things differently and how information technology can enable these changes in the safest, quickest and most cost-effective manner.”