The iron triangle of health care is not law, but an observation

A recent commentary in the Journal of the American Medical Association titled, “The Iron Triangle of Health Care: Access, Cost, and Quality” reflected that any health care system can only optimize two of the three elements – quality, access, cost.  A health care system which provides the finest quality and best access cannot do so without raising costs to unaffordable levels. An inexpensive health care system available to all cannot do so without sacrificing quality. The iron triangle of health care was introduced to me during my medical school training in the 1990s. Like many others, I simply assumed it was a fact. An immutable law. A fixed certainty that could not be altered any more than gravity.

What if this iron triangle isn’t a fundamental truth or law? Why don’t other industries have their own iron triangle? Is health care really different than aviation or computing?  Asking this simple yet basic question is something medical students and doctors don’t ask. Fortunately, this was not the case for Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen, author of the Innovator’s Prescription. His book not only details the theory of disruptive technologies, but also how companies who do “disrupt” the incumbent companies and the status quo are the ones that ultimately provide goods and services which are more affordable, more accessible, and of higher quality. Might there be analogies for health care? Professor Christensen highlights aviation and computing as two examples.

Commercial flight for the masses was not a realistic possibility over a century ago when the Wright Brothers navigated their winged contraption in Kitty Hawk. Even decades later, as epitomized by Pan-Am in the 1960s, air travel was for the affluent and a special event. At that point, air travel was not accessible or affordable for the general public. Yet, in the 1970s, a Texas start-up known as Southwest Airlines provided discounted travel to the general public by offering low fares, no amenities, and a point to point service rather than hub and spoke system.

And traveling by air was never the same again.

Now, more people travel by air than anytime in history with unparalleled safety. More accessible. More affordable. Higher quality.

Computers had a similar beginning evolving from a product where only available to a few due to cost and complexity of the systems to now where computers are affordable, ubiquitous, easy to use and of even better quality than the past. One of the first computers in the 1940s, was Eniac, a huge and expensive mainframe computer which was not reliable, extremely complicated, and accessible only to academics. Years later, the general public typically accessed these mainframe computers at work via technicians. Access was limited. It wasn’t until the late 1970s that desktop computers appeared. Hobbyists and others, like Steve Jobs, built computers which were less expensive and underpowered compared to the mainframe computers, but they were more accessible to the general public. It wasn’t until many years later that subsequent computers became more affordable, more powerful, and more accessible in the form of laptops, netbooks, and now smartphones and tablets. More people had access to computing because the products were more affordable and of even higher quality.

And computing was never the same again.

Based on Christensen’s model, we can predict that health care will indeed break the iron triangle and demonstrate it is not a law but an observation. The question is who will lead these changes? Insurers? Doctors? Patients? Entrepreneurs?

Our next generation of doctors must be trained in other disciplines outside of health care. We must collaborate and accept other ways of looking at the same challenges through the lens of other disciplines including business school. Yet, there is a loathing for this. There is the belief that health care is different. Yes, we can continue to talk about the iron triangle of health care and accept that as a reality.

We can also say no. The iron triangle is not a law but an observation. We choose a different path.

The truth is that this is the most exciting time in health care with the intersection of better medical understanding, the availability of technology, and the best and brightest minds working on the issues of better quality, better access, and lower costs. As doctors and educators, it is our job to make sure the next generation is equipped with the right mindset to team with others. If not, others will define the future of health care.

This is what worries me the most.

Davis Liu is a family physician who blogs at Saving Money and Surviving the Healthcare Crisis and is the author of The Thrifty Patient – Vital Insider Tips for Saving Money and Staying Healthy and Stay Healthy, Live Longer, Spend Wisely.

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