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Disruptive Technology Causes, Cures Healthcare's Ills

Edward Prewitt, for HealthLeaders Media, December 27, 2011

In my recent conversation with Clay Christensen, the Harvard Business School professor and author of The Innovator's Prescription, we talked about his premise that disruptive innovation can cure what ails U.S. healthcare.

Disruptive innovation is the concept that new technologies can turn industries upside down, yet are exceedingly hard for established companies to recognize and harness. While technology might provide the fix for healthcare, it clearly has created a large part of the problem—much of the ever-increasing cost of healthcare is attributable to ever more expensive machines and IT systems. It's worth asking whether the cause of healthcare's problems can really be its solution.

To tease out this conundrum, it helps to think clearly about the different types of technology that affect healthcare. Christensen holds that technology has already disrupted healthcare over the past couple of decades. Yet he's not speaking of electronic medical records or higher-resolution imaging machines.

Rather, technologies such as air travel that affect society on a large scale have undermined the rationale for many hospitals; whereas travel used to be difficult and expensive, nowadays people routinely fly across time zones and even international boundaries for medical procedures. Fewer hospitals are needed as a result.

"Over time, we'll need fewer and fewer hospitals. Boards of those institutions need to just remember that the scope of what they need to do is to be responsible for the health of people, not the preservation of the institutions," says Christensen, one of this year's HealthLeaders 20 honorees.

A second type of technology that has changed healthcare fundamentally is the plethora of monitors, testing equipment, and other devices that make the delivery of healthcare possible in any setting—in a retail clinic, at home, or in a hotel room, for instance. Individually, many of these devices are prosaic, but their total impact is enormous.