IT Forefront

'Digital,' 'disruptive,' 'innovative'? Do your part to fight health care's buzzword problem.

by Andrew Rebhan

While reviewing presentation materials I'd recently prepared, I noticed I had managed to fit the words "digital," "transformation," "disruption," and "innovation" in a single sentence. "That can't be right," I thought, cringing at how I'd crammed all those words together. I realized that sentence was saying a lot of "things" without really saying anything at all. I immediately did a keyword search throughout the entire presentation, and I found many slides where I'd used these same terms—sometimes on their own, but more often together.

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And it wasn't just this one presentation. Thinking back on my recent work, I realized how much of it deployed the same general word salad:

  • Digital health;
  • Digital disruption;
  • Digital journey;
  • Innovation;
  • Digital innovation;
  • Disruptive innovation;
  • Transformation; and
  • Digital transformation.

And it wasn't just my work. Across the industry, the same terms and phrases are used over and over again. Seems like suddenly everyone is on the digital bandwagon—consider it the latest health care hype cycle:

  • Want to be relevant? Go digital.
  • Want to improve health care? Innovate.
  • Want to outperform the market? Become a disruptor.

Defining health care's 'buzzword problem'

That's not to say that these words don't have meaning, but what complicates matters is how the various overlapping ideas can mean different things to different organizations. Here is how I like to frame some of the common terms from an IT perspective:

  • Digital: This really comes down to basic differences between doing something electronically using technology versus via analog or manual methods.

  • Disruption: When an entity uses technology to change the rules of competition (often unexpectedly) in a way that presents a significant threat to incumbents.

  • Transformation: Implies a dramatic change or paradigm shift, typically made to respond to major technological opportunities or competitive threats.

  • Innovation: Implies using technology to do something new and different that creates value, often in response to external market forces.

Often these words are combined into expressions like "digital transformation" or "digital health innovations." So, what does this mean simply? We are talking about taking full advantage of IT-related capabilities to (sometimes radically) alter business performance in a way that solves meaningful problems. It's clear that in many ways, health care does not function well in its current form, and that it needs to evolve to adapt to the value-based care environment. But today's challenges need to be addressed with intention, and IT capabilities can enable real change when they are thoughtfully used in new ways.

It's also important to note that terms like "transformation" and "innovation" carry implications that go well beyond technology, including how to fundamentally redefine and rethink:

  • Business models, governance, and strategy;
  • Product and service portfolios;
  • Care quality and patient pathways;
  • Cost structure and process optimization;
  • Leadership, staff skills, and workflow;
  • Employee hiring and retention;
  • Organizational culture; and
  • Partner relationships and customer experiences.

How you can define—and successfully leverage—health care's buzzwords

So where should you start? Here are some initial thoughts:

Figure out what digital means for your organization. With so many technologies, vendors, and ideas flying around, organizations may start to dive into multiple initiatives without really getting all stakeholders on common ground. This often results in fragmented efforts that lead to dead ends, sub-par performance, or missed opportunities. Establishing some sense of a shared vision across IT and non-IT stakeholders early on will help to focus efforts, and limit distractions as you develop solutions for your customers.

Don't become complacent—innovation is ongoing. Even the lowly fax machine was once considered an innovation. Someday, digital will become the norm in health care, just as it is in other industries. No one says they are going to see a digital movie or read a digital news article or go to a digital bank. The challenge isn't always creating something new or doing things differently, but sustaining the drive to keep improving the way things are done.

Not everything needs to be disrupted. Innovation can still come in analog form, so calibrate your approach. When it comes to developing a digital strategy, often many organizations have a knee-jerk reaction to create something completely new, without considering how to appropriately balance the need to support their existing business, while also planning for new ventures. The proper response to external change will differ from one organization to another.

These buzzwords won't go away anytime soon, but industry stakeholders should take the appropriate steps now to cut through the jargon fog as they plan for future initiatives.

Thank you for reading my digital, disruptive, innovative, transformative blog post.

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