Innovation for All

I was in an interesting discussion yesterday with some colleagues on Medstro (a social media site for doctors). We were talking about the pace of innovation at academic medical centers, but the topic got me thinking more broadly about who is driving innovation in healthcare right now. The short answer seems to be: “everybody”.

Innovation happens wherever people are desperately trying to solve problems. On a global level, we have organizations like the Gates Foundation pouring funding into research and innovation to help eradicate deadly diseases in underdeveloped countries. On a national level, our legislators and President have brought about the Affordable Care Act in recent years in an effort to improve healthcare disparity, cost, and quality. On the healthcare delivery side, in the life sciences, among employers and insurers, we see efforts to innovate and improve healthcare quality, access, and/or cost. In private industry, we see the proliferation of healthcare tools–apps, wearables, and other devices. And, lately I’ve heard about some of the most inspiring innovators: patients. Recently, I read a couple of stories about patients hacking their diabetes devices to better suit their needs and another story about patients’ families starting biotech companies to work on developing drugs for rare diseases that have been typically neglected by industry.

Healthcare is big business. A recent study by Deloitte estimates aggregate US healthcare spending at $3.8 trillion dollars for 2013..!

So, the question is: who should be working on innovations that improve healthcare?

Is it appropriate for our government to fund efforts (as they’ve done with the CMS Centers for Innovation) to develop new models of care? Should it be left to insurers? Employers? Should improving healthcare be left to the experts, scientists and doctors at elite academic institutions? What about private citizens with the deep pockets, like Bill and Melinda? What about all the companies making those wearables? Have any of these devices even been shown to be helpful? Are people just wasting their time on all these devices and collecting all this useless data that will only drive their doctors nuts and cause them to just order more tests and drive up healthcare costs some more? Is it appropriate for patients with their non-medical backgrounds to drive healthcare innovations?

Among doctors (and others), these are controversial topics.

I have my own opinion and it is this: Everyone that identifies problems within healthcare (and feels inspired) should work on finding solutions. I admit that this may not be a popular answer if your only goal is to reduce that $3.8 trillion bill. But, I like to think that we can actually reduce healthcare spending…but the key is not to start with that as the primary goal in mind. The primary goal should be to cure disease and to improve quality of life and longevity. One never knows where the next great revolutionary idea will come from (maybe from a kid in a garage jailbreaking his medical device)? Maybe this idea will transform not just the health and wellbeing of individuals, but solve the healthcare financial crunch we’re in. After all, if someone finds a way to solve the obesity epidemic, they will effectively decrease a host of other very expensive diseases, like diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.

What are your thoughts? Should innovation in healthcare be democratized and open to all, public and private, expert or not? Or should it be left to the realm of scientists and doctors, the experts in the field?

Originally published at on January 20, 2015.

Kirti A. Patel, MD is an women’s health physician (practicing Ob/Gyn and primary care) with 13 years of clinical experience. She received her BA from Boston University, her MD from the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, and will be receiving her Master in Healthcare Leadership from Brown University in May of 2015. Dr. Patel is passionate about innovations in science and technology that can improve healthcare.

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