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Did Hippocrates Stifle Healthcare Innovation?

The Hippocratic Oath graphic

The innovator’s terms “fail fast” and “a safe place to fail” tend to give those in healthcare a case of heartburn.

I can hear the chorus of those saying, “Now wait, Frank, some of the greatest innovations of any industry happen in healthcare, and especially in pharma.”

This would be true, but when factoring in the grueling regulatory and trial elements of these innovations, the safety net is raised pretty high. With some exceptions — like the fast-tracked COVID vaccines — taking eight to ten years from inception to go-to-market is not unusual. Even if it were just two years, other non-pharma innovations would be obsolete by the time they saw daylight.

However, when looking at organizational change in healthcare compared to other industries, experience with both tells me that healthcare providers are incredibly cautious about transformation. I argue that this can be blamed on Hippocrates and a do-no-harm mentality, even when there is little risk of physical or organizational harm.

I’ll add one important disclaimer: in some cases, the resistance to change may stem from leadership not creating a risk-reward culture. Many in these organizations may want to innovate, but there is no incentive to do so. Or perhaps the incentives aren’t worth the effort, thus expanding the do-no-harm mentality from the patient to the entire organization.

I would argue that the pandemic created the illusion of innovation when, in fact, it was resiliency. Many would debate that resiliency IS a variant of innovation. But think of what was genuinely created due to the pandemic instead of what was modified or magnified.

Telemedicine is a perfect example of a do-no-harm resiliency that gets confused with innovation.

Masking and social distancing were not breakthroughs but policy changes. Ventilators and respirators became more critical, but they were always there.

As someone who spent 100 days hospitalized with COVID, I would argue that the pandemic temporarily reduced the meaning of do-no-harm because nothing could harm gravely-ill patients more than the ravishes of the disease itself!

So what happens now that the pandemic has receded?

I was at a conference recently with some of the top healthcare communications leaders in New England, and some of the insights, especially about the consumerization of healthcare, were very interesting.

One of the challenges presenters identified was the sluggish pace of transformational change in healthcare compared to other industries. They weren’t talking about new surgical techniques or medical procedures, but the calcified thinking related to low-risk initiatives like healthcare websites, mobile apps, non-medical technology, and branding.

One counter-argument they consistently heard was that many of these innovations could compromise patient privacy and personal health data. Ironically, these “softer” innovations came nowhere near patient health data. A paradoxical example was related to creating and delivering health literacy content — most of which patients have requested after opting into a site’s privacy policies!

Now it could be argued that in a world of AI-driven data mining, someone searching for advice on STDs could be outed by an algorithm. But would a provider prefer that the patient did a Google search (with questionable advice) versus going to a true fountain of healthcare knowledge like a world-renowned healthcare institution and teaching hospital?

Many healthcare enterprises have hired digital transformation stars from other industries to leapfrog the do-no-harm mentality in areas that would never cause patient harm and actually enhance the patient experience. Most of these changes are as much about processes as they are physical investments.

These luminaries have transformed areas like admissions, telehealth services, appointment reminders, and even food services. However, they found the glacial movement around healthcare innovation professionally stifling, and they returned to the fast-paced sectors they came from ––using their healthcare days as a master class in patience.

So what would the innovator side of Hippocrates say?

He is attributed with inventing the words: symptom, diagnosis, therapy, trauma, and sepsis. He is even more famous for removing superstition from medicine in his era.

Somewhat ironic?

For more insights on Leadership, Patient Experience, Hospital@Home, Burnout, and Equity, head to the ICD Healthcare Network.

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