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5/20/2011
03:46 PM
Paul Cerrato
Paul Cerrato
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Dare To Question The Status Quo

It's not the job of doctors to know what they want--it's up to IT's innovators to develop something unique, even if their peers find it outlandish.

Think back to the Philosophy 101 class you took in college. Remember the trial of Socrates? For corrupting Athens' youth and not believing in the Athenian gods, Socrates was sentenced to drink that famous cup of hemlock. But the underlying crime was far more sinister: He dared to question authority.

As you may recall, he invented what we now call the Socratic method, a series of questions and replies to get at the heart of a matter. His critical thinking skills and willingness to challenge the status quo earned him a place in history, and a death sentence.

In medicine and IT, there have been those rare souls who have had the courage to follow in Socrates' footsteps, risking their professional lives to advance their fields, to truly innovate. Ignaz Semmelweis and Steve Jobs immediately come to mind.

Dr. Semmelweis was the 19th century physician who solved one of the big puzzles of his day--why women who gave birth to babies on the doctors' ward were three times more likely to die than those who gave birth on the midwives' ward. It turned out that the doctors were performing autopsies before they found their way into the delivery suite and never bothered to wash their hands in the interim.

Semmelweis instructed his medical staff to disinfect their hands with a chlorinated lime solution--a radical idea at the time--before deliveries. That drastically reduced the mortality rate for the women who delivered. Washing your hands after touching a cadaver may sound like a no-brainer to us, but this innovation was condemned by the medical "experts" of his day.

In the IT world, the poster exec for disruptive innovation is Steve Jobs. Once asked about the consumer research he uses to come up with so many great product ideas, he responded: "It isn't the consumers' job to know what they want." His success in an industry obsessed with market research is to say that's not the way you get great ideas.

In the words of one New York Times commentator: "His is not a product-design philosophy steered by committee or determined by market research. The Jobs formula, say colleagues, relies heavily on tenacity, patience, belief, and instinct. ..."

That design philosophy has made the iPad, iPod, and iPhone household items, and I think the same philosophy must be applied in healthcare IT: It's not the doctor's job to know what he or she wants.

A clinician may know what has to be done from a clinical or administrative perspective, but that's usually as far as it goes. It's up to IT's innovators--at both vendor and user organizations--to bring their "tenacity, patience, belief, and instinct" to the table to develop something unique, even if it means peers may view their ideas as unrealistic or outlandish.

Innovators Yet Unborn?

That's not to imply that there is no innovative thinking already in place in healthcare IT. The recent column I wrote on mobile health apps featured three outstanding examples: AirStrip Cardiology, UpToDate, and DrChrono. And InformationWeek Healthcare is now running a Mobile Apps/telehealth competition to get IT pros, clinicians, and vendors to nominate additional apps.

But this mobile apps competition is only the beginning of our search for the extraordinary. I suspect there are people with Steve Jobs' potential in the clinical decision support/diagnostic software sector, the e-patient education sector, the electronic health records sector, the nursing informatics sector. We need your help finding them.

Keep in mind, however, we're not looking for the "me toos." We're looking for software and hardware created by innovators who really do color outside the lines.

When I was the executive editor of a clinical journal, it used to drive me crazy getting press releases for new anti-hypertensive drugs that had virtually the same mechanism of action as all the other blood-pressure-lowering medications. And the public relations campaigns that accompanied the new drugs offered pages of hype about their unique features.

Suffice it to say, we're not looking for hype. I want to be wowed, preferably in the first 25 words. Write to me at [email protected] with your suggestions.


The Healthcare IT Leadership Forum is a day-long venue where senior IT leaders in healthcare come together to discuss how they're using technology to improve clinical care. It happens in New York City on July 12. Find out more.

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