Tag Archives: medical innovation

Innovation doesn’t always have to mean new

In a world of new gadgets and gizmos we have lost sight of the fact that medicine is a social construct and that there have been some extraordinarily successful doctors who never ordered an X-ray or prescribed penicillin. That does not mean to say that X-rays or antibiotics don’t make us better healers but if we lose sight of the reasons why people have always needed doctors then we face a very uncertain future. In the world of business it is recognised that people buy ( i.e. make decisions or commitments) based on how they feel about something, not just, and sometimes in spite of , the information available. Heart always trumps mind. How else do you explain so many of our questionable decisions in life? By corollary we need to invest in the experience we offer as health care providers, perhaps more than the devices we chose to purchase that keep us at arms length from the patient.

What that means for innovators is that we occasionally have to rediscover the ‘innovations’ that are already in our offices. Possibly the most celebrated research I led was a study that demonstrated that people trust you more when you are seen wearing a stethoscope. It followed on from research that confirmed other things we have ‘always known’- what you wear matters, how you greet your patients/ clients matters and if you seem distracted in the consultation then it detracts from the patient’s experience.

At medical school one of our tutors offered this advice:

Always stand to greet the patient, never sit down before the patient and always find a reason to touch the patient even if it is only to take their pulse.

Simple advice that speaks to the art of healing- because in the end that is what gives medicine its mandate to be involved with people in distress. We were reminded that for some of our patients, perhaps those who need us the most, the unemployed, the marginalised, the unfortunate  the doctor may be the only person in any authority who will greet them with respect that day. Therefore innovation begins and ends with a review of the basics- What is it like for your patients or clients? How are they welcomed to the service? Is your telephone message welcoming? Are your reception staff professional? Do you offer privacy at all times? Do you seem interested or concerned? Would you trust someone who presented themselves the way you do?  Would you feel better after a visit to your clinic? Do your staff need a new machine more than a better way to make people feel they care?

Integrating primary care providers

People can, and do, consult other than doctors when they are unwell or perceive that there is something the matter with them. The list is large but includes:

  • Pharmacists
  • Nurses
  • Podiotrists
  • Dentists
  • Physiotherapists
  • Opticians

These care providers offer  a specific skill set but this does not include the ability to deal with undifferentiated conditions or to make a definitive diagnosis of a condition outside their scope of practice. However research suggests that such primary care professionals are often among the first to treat someone with depression, cancer, atheromatous vascular disease, hypertension and or dementia. Early diagnosis and treatment of any of these conditions would result in a much better outcome for patients. That does not mean that these health care professionals could or should be a substitute for medical practitioners. For one thing their business model does not allow them to spend time on dealing with the complexities that are inherent in establishing a diagnosis of such conditions, or to deal with the many others that need to be ruled out in the differential diagnosis. Nor are they equipped to coordinate the care of people with such conditions.

Cheap intuitive and creative solutions include ways to signpost people who present with such problems to the care professional best placed to coordinate their care. Research suggests that when someone is offered a note to present to a medical practitioner suggesting investigations for significant pathology, people will follow up with an appointment and benefit. The components of such an innovation include a way to screen people for risk of significant pathology- the person with persistent diarrhoea seeking advice from a pharmacist, the person with unrelenting back pain who might be clinically depressed, the person with undiagnosed diabetes presenting with visual problems. All these people need to consult a medical practitioner. However they are not always recognised and here lies the scope for relatively cheap innovation to integrate care providers without interfering in the way care providers function within their own domain of expertise.

The most successful health innovation ever

What medical innovation is:

1. Available worldwide
2. More likely to yield a diagnosis than an X-ray
3. Cheaper than the cheapest stethoscope
4. Requires less training to operate than a tendon hammer?

Answer: A tongue depressor

Why? Because when deployed within the context of a medical consultation- when the practitioner gives the patient their undivided attention, the tongue depressor forges a relationship that may lead the patient to express their deepest concerns. In what other social context can you shove a piece of wood into someones open mouth and get them to say ahhh? A few years ago I consulted a fifty year old mother of five, working as a supermarket check out assistant complaining of a sore throat. We talked about how awful she felt and how she was struggling to cope with her job, how she gets frequent bouts of tonsillitis and how she was afraid her boss would sack her. She had a mildly red throat and I thought I could feel a couple of tender lymphnodes in her neck but her temperature was normal and I remember thinking I’d seen worse earlier that day. Then as I turned around to write a prescription she burst into tears and said-

‘There’s something else I need to tell you doctor. I’m now working as a prostitute because for the first time in ten years I haven’t been able to afford my kids school books.’

That was not what I expected to hear, or anything they told me at medical school could result from examining a throat. That consultation took a very different direction, she was screened for other infections and was fortunately negative. We then talked about her dilemma and she decided there may be better ways to furnish her kids with what they needed for school.

There is very little evidence that the appearance of the throat aids the diagnosis in most cases- even a viral sore throat can mimic a bacterial infection. In any case in developed economies penicillin does not help the patients recover much quicker. However, anyone with a sore throat who consults a doctor expects to be examined. Besides why do people seek medical advice about pharyngitis? It is common knowledge that in most cases a couple of paracetamol, fluids and rest is the only effective treatment. In many cases people are expressing concern about some other aspect of their life when they present with minor self limiting illness. What people say, if you are receptive is

‘I’m unhappy, I’m worried, I’m bored, I’m feeling guilty, I’m tired or I’m not coping and this discomfort is the last straw.’

That’s one of the myriad of reasons that general practice is the most challenging medical specialty, nothing is necessarily what it seems at first glance.

Innovations don’t need to be high tech or expensive- a tongue depressor costs 13 cents. That doesn’t mean that in the right hands such simple equipment is not extraordinarily powerful. There are tools we seldom do without- a stethoscope is vital and not only because of what we can hear when we put it to the chest.

Putting the patient first is not just good medicine, it’s good business

Primary healthcare is mostly organised as if all patients had the same needs. Patients who have a chronic illness who are repeat visitors and those with significant risk factors for future disease, are expected to fit into a system that is designed to meet the needs of someone with urgent and temporary illness. The current system is designed as if it doesn’t really matter which doctor consults them or what is known about their needs.

These are the facts:

1. Each week, there are 1,700 new cases of dementia in Australia; approx. one person every 6 minutes.

2. Cardiovascular disease affects one in six Australians

3. In 2011/12,4.6 million Australians(32%)aged 18years and over had high blood pressure (systolic or diastolic blood pressure is ≥140/90 mmHg or taking medication). Of these, more than two thirds (68%) had uncontrolled or unmanaged high blood pressure (not taking medication), representing 3.1 million adult Australians.

4. 1 in 2 Australian men and 1 in 3 Australian women will be diagnosed with cancer by the age of 85.

In some cases patients are expected to make appointments at a time and place that suits the practitioner. They might be seen for as little as 10 minutes and can feel that their questions and concerns have been addressed. The consequence is that both the doctor and the patient become frustrated.

The clinician complains about workload while the patient seeks alternative ways to meet their needs. There is published evidence that patients with chronic illnesses have significant unmet needs that impact on their quality of life.

The lean innovator knows that the future success of healthcare depends on serving the needs of those who are likely to need to consult a doctor many times in coming years. These patients need to live life despite pathology and to care for others even when they are not feeling their best. The person with enduring health problems also needs to believe that their doctor knows them, understands their perspective and has their best interests at heart.

In the business world such a loyal customer is prized. The business strives to make them feel valued. Great businesses constantly reinvent themselves and look for new ways to ensure that the customer is happy with the service on offer. It takes relatively little to satisfy the patient in a primary healthcare setting. We know, but sometimes forget, that what the patient craves most of all is their doctor’s undivided attention. Like a customer in any other business our patients want to feel that they matter.

We don’t need a department or a huge budget to innovate, because as both business owners and doctors we have the authority and insight to redesign how the patient feels from the moment they walk through the door and at every stage before and after their appointment.

If research has taught us anything it is that the fundamental need in healthcare is for their doctor to have good communication skills. Without that foundation nothing that technology can do for the patient will ever be good enough. Every touchpoint of the system needs to reflect the experience in the consulting room and should say to the patient—we know and care about you.

What is the most important thing you do for the people you serve? Do they get a sense of that from the moment they look for your help?

Why the future of health lies in thinking small

General Practice in Australia is a private business. There are 7200 GP businesses in Australia, with a revenue of $10bn per annum. Each practitioner is estimated to earn $200,000 on average. 95% of the income for these businesses is derived from government rebates, mostly from 10 to 15 minute consultations. The concerns of the practitioners in this context are said to be:

1. Threat of litigation

2. Too much work to do in a limited time

3. Earning enough money

4. Patients who are difficult to manage

5. Paperwork

6. Intrusion of work on family life

7. The cost of practice overheads

8. Time pressure to see patients

9. Unrealistic community expectations

10. Negative media comments

Increases in the Medicare rebate have failed to keep pace with the rise in the costs of running a GP service with increased patient throughput often used to make up the shortfall. Where this and other barriers exist, it may not be feasible for patients to be offered additional advice or services beyond their original reason for presentation unless a strategy is negotiated and agreed between the relevant players.

We know that the healthcare needs of patients are set to change in three important ways:

1. The population is aging.

2. There are more effective, albeit ever more expensive treatments available.

3. Poor lifestyle choices, linked to obesity will generate greater demand for medical appointments.

We are therefore relying on private businesses to respond to growing need in the knowledge that they are already working to capacity.

Under the central set of assumptions used in this study, total health and residential aged care expenditure is projected to increase by 189% in the period 2003 to 2033 from $85 billion to $246 billion—an increase of $161 billion….This is an increase from 9.3% of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2002–03 to 12.4% in 2032–33. Increases in volume of services per treated case are projected to account for half of this increase (50%). Projection of Australian health care expenditure by disease, 2003 to 2033

Another unique aspect of the business of medicine is that despite its technical and scientific basis, medicine is most effective when the human interaction between practitioner and patient is at its heart. Efforts to interfere in the process through the revision of payment schedules are only partially successful if not actually harmful.

The commercial reality is that without innovation, primary care as a business will not keep up with demand. To date evidence in practice is that researchers in primary care often fail to engage with clinical partners and innovation is stymied. Government investment in innovation in primary care is on the one hand conservative and limited. Ninety percent of government funded healthcare is delivered by small businesses and yet over 90% of government investment in research and innovation is targeted elsewhere. What little is funded is usually awarded to competing tertiary institutions whose performance is measured on academic outputs rather than impact on practice.

These are the foundations for a lean, agile, creative, approach to innovation  based on commercial reality and factoring in three key elements:

1. The most expensive component of innovation is establishing the problem and creating a value proposition that  factors in the perspective of end users.

2. Innovation only ever works when it is driven by a champion willing and able to re-engineer multiple prototypes to solve the problem.

3. There are opportunities for commercial partnerships if the key performance is reframed in the metrics of sales.

The conditions already exist for this approach to innovation in the business of primary care. Primary care in many countries, like Australia, is led by highly creative, intuitive problem solvers, many invest their insights and energy on small projects that have the scope for substantial commercial returns but more importantly to deal with the coming tsunami of health related problems. The final word is to Paul Graham:

People are bad at looking at seeds and guessing what size tree will grow out of them. The way you’ll get big ideas in, say, health care is by starting out with small ideas. If you try to do some big thing, you don’t just need it to be big; you need it to be good. And it’s really hard to do big and good simultaneously. So, what that means is you can either do something small and good and then gradually make it bigger, or do something big and bad and gradually make it better. And you know what? Empirically, starting big just does not work. That’s the way the government does things. They do something really big that’s really bad, and they think, Well, we’ll make it better, and then it never gets better.

Why innovators should learn to embrace feedback

Lean innovators often work in isolation and not surprisingly the innovator is emotionally invested in her idea. She has conceived the idea, developed it, spent time and resources on bringing the idea to life. This makes criticism of her brain-child very hard to bear.

The temptation is to be defensive. To shout down the critic. To take the view that the person offering an opinion hasn’t understood the brilliance of what has been brought to the world. The cure for this sort of pain is to begin with the end in mind.
Consider who is this innovation is for? Who needs to cooperate to make it available to the end user? Who will pay for it, either with hard cash or with their time and effort?

Another way to get a better understanding of the real problem you’re trying to solve is to write a short letter to the person you want to solve the problem for. A crucial part of innovating is to tell the story of the invention effectively, to make the people who need to care in that moment, care. It’s worth investing the time to get your story right and to seek out people you trust to give you honest feedback before you have to tell the story for real.

Rethinking The Benefits Of Expensive Medical Research

In the developed world the really scary diagnoses are very uncommon. More often than not a patient’s symptoms can be safely interpreted as benign. This has engendered a false sense of security because there is evidence that doctors fail to recognise presentations of some nasty diseases.

Innovators in medicine have been focused on this problem for some time. For example a research team reported in 2009 that skin cancer was much easier to diagnose with the aid of a handheld device that draws attention to cancerous changes. The problem however is that doctors need to attend a course on dermatology and take an exam before it is safe to let them lose on people with the instrument. The published report was upbeat despite the fact that one in three doctors didn’t complete the required training. The outcome of this research (and many other research programs funded using millions in taxpayer dollars), was an academic paper that will never impact on the early diagnosis of the disease.

Less than five years later some of the same team were back to test a simpler device but with a similar requirement for education of doctors before successful deployment. The negative results were hardly surprising. The team concluded that cancer was more likely to be diagnosed early if doctors followed guidelines.

History has taught us that just because an intervention may be of benefit to patients, that doesn’t mean it is likely to be embraced by overburdened care providers trying to earn a living. The most successful innovators understand the need to tailor interventions to meet the needs of both the health professional and her patient. They realise that tools that are inconvenient or cumbersome are doomed to novelty status.

Committees that determine which ideas are worthy often deny the lessons of agile, intuitive, creative and effective innovations. These are more likely to be reliable, developed relatively cheaply and don’t need an instruction manual.
How hard is it to adopt your innovative ideas in practice?

Seven trends influencing lean medical innovation

Innovators recognise that the their circle of influence is contingent on an awareness of their customers’ world view. Seven trends now impact on whether people are likely to welcome innovation into their lives.

Mobile communication

For many people mobile phones have replaced their wrist watch, camera and PDA. Phones are now used not only to keep in touch but also to access information with two taps. This is achieved on a ubiquitous device that is getting cheaper and more portable. An allied trend is for tablet computers that are little bigger than a phone to obviate the need for a laptop.


People now demand validity for professional advice that until recently was accepted as gospel because an authority figure proffered it as the truth. This means that you no longer trust me simply because I am a doctor. What’s more people want the results of medical tests in a format that makes sense to them regardless of their ability to digest complex information .

Quantified self

There is an increasing desire to measure and record whatever can be measured as if that in itself will be enough to influence our behaviour. Everything from blood pressure to how much we sleep. Quite what people are doing with all this information is a matter of debate but people are seeking ways to access this information.

Information overload

Because of the almost unlimited source of information at their fingertips people are actively filtering data. A quick Google search for ‘best diet’ revealed 625 million results with page upon page of conflicting and confusing advice. On the one hand you could opt for intermittent dieting or you could take the advice to ditch the diet altogether. As I hold the view that it has to be proved scientifically before it can be deemed true I more or less ignored (i.e. didn’t read) anything that didn’t appear to conform to my own worldview for valid and reliable advice.

Dr. Google.

Concerned people want relief from the outpouring of adrenalin with its unpleasant physical effects. In a Googlised world iving with uncertainty is regarded as unnecessary. This means as a clinician you have to assume people will have done some homework before they speak with you. Either what you say will resonate with their ‘ informed opinion’ or your advice will be rejected unless you are able to say or do something that changes how they feel about their problem and or the treatment.


The cost of staying healthy increases every year . In Australia the cost of attending a doctor have fast outstripped the rate of inflation. As we age and need more maintenance we will either spend a greater proportion of our income on medicines or look for cheaper alternatives. There is now a compelling business case for marketing cheaper and more effective ways to deal with health problems that until recently required doctors’ appointments.

Want it now

Anyone living with a teenager knows that they no longer accept the wait for Christmas. If you want it, there must be a quick, cheap and immediate way to get it, preferably delivered to your door with a money back guarantee. Therefore speed of delivery is necessary, but not sufficient for success. Innovations that do what they say on the tin, at a reasonable price and come with excellent after sales service are almost guaranteed a bright future.

Lean medicine is about working in a world that has an insatiable appetite for quick, convenient, cheap solutions. The seven trends outlined here have a significant impact on the diffusion of innovation in healthcare. How have they impacted on the success of your ideas?

Innovating at the interface between service providers

At least one in a hundred patients seen in general practice are referred to hospital.

In many countries the referral process hasn’t changed in decades. It’s still done with pen and paper and even in 2013 in some developed countries it still involves a fax machine. What’s interesting about the process is that once the letter is received at the hospital, it is read and then triaged by someone to determine when the patient should be offered an appointment. The decision is made in less than a minute. Everything, perhaps even life or death situations. hinges on the impression created by the writer of that letter.

In a government subsidised system, where there is a need to ration appointments, a patient might be seen next week, next month or six months from now. The reality is that in some cases a patient might wait longer than is ideal and the outcome for them may be compromised, because of what was in the referral letter and how that was interpreted. Who then is to blame, the doctor who was consulted first, or the hospital that arranged a deferred appointment? How can innovation help in this situation?

I’ve been involved on teams that have studied this problem from many different angles culminating in a randomised trial of an innovation in 2012. We came to a number of conclusions. Firstly involving people in innovation when they don’t believe they have a problem is frustrating. Many doctors think their letters are just fine, or that the recipient hardly reads them. Its difficult to innovate in a busy clinic where doctors are working flat out, and the truth is that if the innovation doesn’t make life easier for the doctor as well as the patient then it’s going to be hard to implement.

Secondly colleagues are reticent to demand change from one another, especially when they work in different parts of the system. So, as a hospital specialist I might not feel I have any mandate to require that referral letters contain the details that I like to have. It’s even worse when the paymasters across the sectors are different. In Australia hospitals are funded by State governments, whereas primary care is funded by the Federal government. What’s more primary care providers work to a ‘pay for service’ model. Which effectively means that primary care survives on profits.

Thirdly, it is unsafe to assume that all colleagues apply the same criteria about what clinical scenarios should be allocated an urgent specialist opinion, even within the same specialty, in the same healthcare system, and with reference to nationally accepted guidelines. That was unexpected!

Some problems require a whole systems approach. A problem that has seemingly obvious roots, with a strong(ish) evidence base can be difficult to crack with a lean medicine approach. Where multiple individuals are involved across health sectors, it is absolutely necessary that innovations make everyone’s life easier. Requiring letters to be written a certain way, and demanding that the process is enforced by the recipients, when there isn’t local consensus on what is an urgent case, is not going to work without something else to make it worthwhile for all concerned. What this problem calls for is more innovation when it comes to making the decision to refer. Perhaps more sensitive near-patient tests, which are better able to predict who is most likely to benefit from limited national resources.

What are your ideas for improvement that don’t require people to donate time and effort for no personal gain? Pushing out innovation is not enough, if there isn’t a pull from those at the coalface to adopt those ideas. It isn’t safe, even in medicine, to assume that people will do it, use it or promote it simply because they recognise that patients will benefit.

The context is often private and confidential

7257592240_6759efd5a5_zThe consultation between a doctor and patient is private. Innovators hoping to improve outcomes in that context can’t observe the exchange directly because some presentations are very uncommon and because neither the doctor nor the patient welcomes the intrusion. There are many outcomes of the encounter between patient and doctor that we still don’t fully understand. Why are some patients’ cancer symptoms not recognised as early warnings? Why do carers of patients with a life-limiting illness fail to have their own medical problems addressed? Why do people living with some chronic conditions continue to have problems with intimacy?

People deploy verbal and non-verbal cues to communicate. They choose when and how to disclose their ideas, concerns and expectations. However in an average consultation in my country, the patient has fifteen minutes to ‘spit it out’. Similarly, clinicians vary in their ability to pick up cues or to probe with the right question, assuming they get the right answer. Hence errors of omission and or commission.

Lean medicine is about being intuitive, creative and agile. Lean innovators, clinicians, are already on site. Therefore, they can reproduce the context in a way that can be observed and where they can be tested with other clinicians. Video technology and a fusion of skills across disciplines allow the depiction of those encounters in such a way as to present the critical decision point for close examination. Do you prescribe, refer or investigate in these circumstances? What do you say to the patient?

How do you explore hard to reach elements in your practice or business? How can you hope to innovate for encounters that are strictly private and confidential but where mistakes or misunderstanding can be very bad for business. Who has the insight to show you? How can you generate valid hypotheses? How do you test ideas without a real risk of casualties?

Picture by Urbanbohemian