Must Innovation Always Involve Electrons, Steel and New Molecules?

Like many Americans, I eagerly await the release of the next-gen iPhone, Ford Focus and new uses of carbon-fiber in manufacturing.

Like all physicians, I celebrate the enhanced precision and clinical efficacy made possible with the use of electronic medical records (EMR), robotic surgery and immune-modulating biologicals.

But what if I told you that “workflow” (the precise sequences nurses, doctors, and pharmacists use to get their work done) creates MORE health benefit for Americans than the more-celebrated new electrons, steel and molecules?

Three decades ago, air travel transformed itself – it is safer to fly (commercial airlines) than drive your car. That improvement in safety was NOT due to new electrons (our air-traffic control systems are archaic, bound together with duct-tape); NOT new steel (with rare exception, airlines fly airplanes designed in the 1970’s, built in the 1980’s, and updated in the 1990’s); NOT new molecules (except for the troubled carbon-fiber Boeing 787).

Instead, the airline industry created exemplary safety (and efficiency – airlines ‘turn-around’ a plane within 45 minutes) using efficient and reliable workflow, checklists and culture-change. We’ve used those same tools in healthcare to reduce infection / sepsis, more quickly liberate patients from the mechanical ventilator, and reduce medication errors.

Sometimes the most useful innovations in healthcare come from redesigning HOW we care for patients. That’s why at Kaiser Permanente we’ve invested not only in new electrons, steel and molecules, but also process improvement, continuous quality improvement and the creation of highly-reliable teams. All for the benefit of you, our 9 million members.

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