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"Healthcare is Hard" and Other Lessons Learned When Innovators Move to Healthcare

abstract graphic representing digital innovation
Innovation all-stars come to healthcare from other industries with a transformative vision — to take the wisdom from their past careers and help bring this industry into the next century. But there are some lessons they soon learn upon arrival...

For years, I’ve interviewed all-stars from other industries on how they’ve applied the wisdom from their previous careers to healthcare innovation. In fact, most were hired by major healthcare enterprises to do precisely that.

They come from global brands focusing on hospitality, retail, consumer goods, and high-tech. And they come in with a transformative vision – based on their previous lives – to bring healthcare into the next century. In the spirit of full disclosure, I have been one of those executives who took himself outside his professional comfort zone to reinvent certain aspects of healthcare and the patient experience. My hair is grayer, and I have a limp from some of those experiences.

Here are some of the lessons they quickly learn upon entering the healthcare landscape.

The ‘Healthcare is Hard’ Dissuader

The first warning that healthcare professionals give to outsiders is “healthcare is hard.” I almost laughed the first time I heard it, but then I heard it repeatedly. I live in the Northeast, so I liken it to a Southerner saying, “Well, bless your soul.” It doesn’t really have anything to do with religion and is in no way a compliment.

But serial innovators are rarely dissuaded, and something as simple as transformational minefields would not be a dealbreaker... to the contrary. Most have experienced friendly fire in their previous industries, so skeptics from the healthcare industry aren’t going to spook them off.

And So It Begins...

As I’ve written before, there is a considerable difference between innovation and replication. Replication of others’ creativity creates the illusion of innovation. Most of the disruptive innovators I know would never settle for copying.

However, we live in a business world where they gravitate to an “I want what they have” mentality, and when it is duplicated, they feel satisfied. And worse, they rest for a while rather than pushing on.

One of the frustrations for healthcare innovators is the nature of many reviewing committees that determine whether providers deserve reimbursement by insurers or the government. Hospital administrators want to show these reviewing bodies that they're innovating but not actually disrupting like their consumer counterparts. As in my previous blog post, this is a do-no-harm perspective that creates additional challenges.

Healthcare Consumerization Baffles Consumer Experts

One of the great debates among healthcare leaders is whether healthcare can truly be consumerized (much like consumer products or e-commerce sites). The word itself creates anxiety among patient-facing clinicians because they feel it devalues the profession, which is often criticized for being too transactional as it is.

Because of this, change is incremental which makes many coming in from the outside yearn for the days when controlled failures were expected or even demanded. Those of us who grew up in business with a “safe place to fail mentality” can feel asphyxiated by these modest deltas and hesitations.

The Paradox of Building High-Performance Teams

Ironically, healthcare is often seen as a groundbreaking industry what with its advances in cancer research, medical devices, and surgical techniques. But in many of the operational aspects, change operates at a glacial pace.

An even greater irony is that many disruptive innovators have come to embrace the fact that it will take years to make the meaningful changes that would have taken weeks in their previous careers. My experiences tell me that building high-performance teams in healthcare is more challenging than in other industries, primarily because of the compartmentalization (or perhaps departmentalization) of the modern healthcare enterprise.

Many innovators from other industries are accustomed to hand-selecting their high-performance teams and permitting them to operate from what I call “outside the general population.” But the challenge of the post-pandemic healthcare workforce – where staff is “all hands on deck” – makes sharing resources across silos incredibly challenging. This is especially true for nurses and physicians, given the high risk of burnout.

A Million Little Things vs. The Big Idea

So why do high-power innovators gravitate to healthcare? Many will tell you that their previous leadership positions never made them feel like they were making a difference. Despite the challenges of rapid transformation, the incremental change that occurred was much more meaningful to them.

Others entered with a thriving-on-chaos mentality, especially during the heat of the pandemic. This parallels the anti-fragility movement, where stressors, shocks, volatility, mistakes, attacks, or failures are embraced rather than avoided.

But what many learned was that healthcare is often about a million little (and important) changes as opposed to the one BIG idea. These modifications might include workflow updates, new medical record technologies, or the need to build a killer portal that resembles the patient’s favorite consumer sites. Even the most revolutionary technologies, like generative AI, have been met with caution because the room for error is very low and the stakes are incredibly high.

And yet they continue to come... to experience the exhilaration and professional satisfaction of making the world a healthier place.

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