Making health care better, faster, and cheaper with collective innovations

The country seems to have shifted in less than 18 months from a slogan of “Yes We Can!” to “Oh, well…” and a shrug, then back to “Cool! I think. What was that, really?”

Hopes for a true rebirth of health care turned into the Year of Screaming Inanely, then took that long slide from what we might hope for to what we might settle for. Yet suddenly it seems like things are popping up all over the place, like mushrooms on a forest floor in springtime. New projects and initiatives are emerging from little companies, big companies, garage startups, info-giants and mega-industrial combines.

It looks just as if, frustrated by a glacial and refractory legislative process, Americans and American companies have taken matters into their own hands, not with torches and pitchforks, but devices and codes and business models, all trying to figure out some way they can help make health care better, faster and cheaper. It is as if Rosie the Riveter of the World War II poster were once again flexing a muscle and saying, “We can do it!”

Better for less

“Better, faster and cheaper?” The glib management saw is: “Quality, cost and speed—choose two.” The received wisdom is that you can do things at high quality and low cost, but it will take a long time. If you want high quality at high speed, it will cost a bundle. If you want low cost and high speed, you can’t have quality.

But health care does not fit that wisdom at all. In health care “speed” translates to “accessibility,” in terms of coverage, availability of services and convenience, as well as sheer rapid response.

And uniquely in health care, the management saw is wrong: You can have all three. The Dartmouth Center studies repeatedly show that efficiency and effectiveness go together in health care. There is no clinical advantage to making the process more clunky, difficult and expensive. And more is not better in health care—doing more tests and more procedures actually correlates not just with added cost, but with worse outcomes. Efficiency, convenience and low cost are therapeutically effective.

This is the giant prize at the center of the labyrinth of changing health care: We could do it better for less. Much better, for much less. And more and more companies are heading straight for that prize.

Retail clinics

Let me give you a few examples. They sometimes are big, bold actions, and sometimes are things that seem like details from the outside, but could turn out to be very large.

CVS/Caremark, for instance. The CVS pharmacy chain has been growing very quickly over the last 15 years, swallowing up Revco, Arbor, Eckard, Sav-On, Osco and Longs, ballooning from 1,400 stores to over 7,000. In 2006, it bought MinuteClinic, a chain of retail clinics, and began expanding it to almost 600 locations today. In 2007, CVS merged with the massive pharmacy benefit manager Caremark, with some 64,000 participating pharmacies, to become CVS/Caremark. The combined organization is now the largest provider of prescription medicines in the nation.

The interesting detail? CVS/Caremark has decided to use its massive market footprint to do something about chronic disease, starting with diabetes. It goes beyond the more usual passive education programs to aggressively get out and work with patients by, for instance, sending a nurse to your house to show you how to test your glucose level, how to use insulin and how to regulate your diet to keep the disease in check.

And the PBM side of the company is working with the pharmacy part so you can walk into any MinuteClinic to get the same advice, or get your A1c score tested, any time that is convenient, instead of having to make an appointment at a doctor’s office. There is likely a convincing business model to such services, but these kinds of direct patient services are much harder to pull off than another PBM deal or opening another store. They are the kind of thing a company has to want to do.

A leader in efficiency

GE Healthcare, with 46,000 employees, headquartered in the United Kingdom, is one of the largest vendors of medical equipment in the world, owning (to take one example) 80 percent of all the anesthesia machines in the United States and 60 percent of the machines in the world. Like all of General Electric, the world’s largest corporation, GE Healthcare is highly focused on quality, and the processes by which it continually hones its products and abilities.

But GE Healthcare has come to realize that this mindset, so natural within GE, is not shared by its customers, who often think quite differently, and have quite different concerns and incentives. Within the past year, it set out on a major program involving all its major executives, down to the manager level, especially in the service division, which interacts with the customers on-site every day for years on end, to better understand the customer—how the industry works, how it makes its money, how it gets things done, why quality and efficiency in processes are only beginning to be understood across much of health care.

They are doing this, GE executives tell me, not only to work with their customers better, but also partly to influence their customers, to educate them to the way GE thinks about quality and efficiency. I asked one GE Healthcare executive how this would help sales. If it were really able to help its customers be more efficient, wouldn’t they be more efficient, among other things, in using GE machines—and so actually buy fewer units?

“That may happen,” he told me, “but we see that health care simply has to change, and it will change, to be more lean and efficient. If we help lead that charge, we will be identified in the customers’ minds with a whole new way of working more efficiently, with less variation, and better quality.”

New approaches to storing health records

Personal health records make up one big mushroom patch. Google Health, for instance, provides a place where patients can keep their health records. But here again, the revolutionary force is down in the details. Besides plain old record storage, Google Health also provides what may become a de facto standard for personal health records, making the CCR standard it has adopted into the MP3 of health records.

Equally important, both Microsoft’s HealthVault and Google Health work like Apple’s iPhone: They provide an open platform with an API—an application programming interface—for which anyone can design apps.

MDLiveCare, the see-a-real-doctor-online-right-now site, is an app integrated with Google Health, as OnlineCare is with HealthVault.

Similarly, SalesForce.com has invested in (and provided its Force.com platform for) PracticeFusion, a free medical practice suite. Its ChartShare allows any authorized provider to view and interact with the patient’s chart—and its sibling, PatientFusion, gives the patient a look at the chart arranged in one convenient interface. All of this software is free.

The business models are all over the map. Like many things Google does, Google Health does not really have a business model, except Google’s belief (so far well-founded) that the more it can provide storage and search and interface for every bit of information on the planet, the more it will prosper. Google Health does not plop advertising on your chart, and does not sell your information to anyone. PracticeFusion supports itself through advertising and through selling impersonal, statistical information about disease trends. MDLiveCare asks for your credit card information.

Mostly, these companies seem to be in a kind of land rush. They see health information as a nowhere-near-mature field, and they are staking out the territory with little or no focus on profit for now.

New platforms

If we want to imagine the true power of these patient interfaces, we have to look even beyond today’s Internet browser-driven information world to the new platforms arising right now: the smart phone and the whatever we will call the generic version of the iPad. The iPhone is not just a product, it is a platform. Though Apple is suing its imitators, the platform will be imitated, copied, expanded and made cheaper. The core of it is not the device, it is the combination of cheap or free apps on a relatively open platform for which anyone can design.

The growth of this model has been explosive: More than 140,000 apps are now available for the iPhone alone; people have downloaded more than 3 billion of them. There is already a website dedicated just to reviewing medical apps (iMedicalApps.com, of course), including patient scheduler apps, charge capture apps, medical calculators and patient trackers.

The recently launched iPad will likely be another platform—similar, but bigger and even easier to use, big enough to share, intuitive enough for the non-tech-savvy, on which anyone can build any app, especially including patient health care interfaces of every flavor. Like the iPhone, it will launch a flood of imitators as well, and manufacturers are already developing medical applications and accessories for it.

Real value

None of these things will “fix” health care. But collectively they route around its problems and head more directly toward the real value we are looking for—the health of the patient, at the highest possible quality and the least possible cost. Insurance reform can make health care more available for more people. But collectively, these innovations do what insurance reform could never do—actually make health care better, faster, cheaper.

Cartoonist Walt Kelley’s character Pogo famously pronounced: “We have met the enemy and he is us.” But Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron much less famously pointed out that there is a corollary to Pogo’s pronouncement: “I have met the friend and he is me.” In health care we have for a long time been our own worst enemies, each defending our own turf and way of doing things, often caught in a welter of mixed incentives that would cross an investment banker’s eyes. In these disruptive innovations, we can see the million ways we have of becoming our own best friends.

Joe Flower is a healthcare speaker, writer, and consultant who blogs at Healthcare Futurist: Joe Flower.  This post originally appeared in H&HN Weekly.

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  • http://wellescent.com/health_blog Wellescent Health Blog

    All this innovation has significant potential as long as it serves physicians or both physicians and patients at the same time. If it only serves patients at the expense of the doctor’s time, it is not going to gain much traction given the already-overworked state of so many primary care physicians.

    At the same time, unless there is ultimately some money to be made for those who are creating the applications, such applications will lack any support and subsequently, any long term viability. While a good application can be made on the first pass, it is more likely to be perfected after a few revisions and this will require either a dedicated individual donating their time or someone being paid on an ongoing basis for such applications.

  • imdoc

    The two greatest obstructions to disrupting innovations in medicine are an onerous regulatory environment and domination of third party payment system.

  • http://www.milanmooremd@gmail.com Milan Moore MD, MPH

    Now that Google has instituted personalized search (your Google search results are based on your past choices, your search history, your gmail search term prevalence, Google Phone / Voice message transcriptions [yes, they will search and index terms from your phone messages if you elect Google Voice service], etc), they do not have to advertise on Google Health in order to profit from the data. By searching and indexing key words from your health record and using those to inform/customize your regular Google searches, they are better able to target the AdWords advertising you see, thereby increasing the profits of their advertisers and, Google hopes, the PPC prices of their ads. For example, the bunion patient may see more ads for orthotic shoes when they enter the search for “Shoes” on Google. The Google Health user may or may not feel comfortable with this. There is no free lunch….. or free health record.

  • Tom

    You should know that the “Fast, Cheap, Good – Pick Two”, far from being a management slogan, is an engineering slogan (or law). It is management that pushes for all 3, and engineering that reminds them of the art of the possible… ..just as the author appears to need to be reminded of the possible.

    The healthcare bill has not suspended the above law. Indeed, I can apply it to every situation above without much strain. Go ahead, give it a try.

  • gzuckier

    An aside; note the more recent engineering watchword, “Fast, cheap, and out of control” http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.49.7214&rep=rep1&type=pdf

    There is no doubt that the push is on to move the bulk of the information and the responsibility for decision-making thereto pertaining from the classical medical profession(s) to the individual patient (or “consumer”), the payers (insurers, employers, and/or government), and the eventual holy grail, unmanned expert systems or the like. Presumably this will free the doctors from routine, so that they can attend to the tough cases.

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