Despite its seeming silliness, people love Staples’ Easy Button. Those goofy buttons show up on desktops from coast-to-coast, an indication of those moments where we strike our head and say, “Duh, that was easy!”
No surprise, there is no metaphorically complementary tchotchki for healthcare. We in the healthcare field are notorious for making things complicated and, if we had people who made us cute little buttons, ours would probably have a picture of Rube Goldberg and the slogan, “Really, that’s how we’re going to do this?”
I’m guessing that if there ever were an attack from outer space and the marauding aliens were required upon landing to figure out how our healthcare system works in order to immediately gain complete and total control of the country, they would no doubt throw up their hands and say “screw it, too complicated,” as they gunned their spaceships back to Mars. They probably wouldn’t even make the trip if they had any idea of the labyrinthine mess we have made of insurance payments or the FDA approval process.
And yet there are times when people from inside and outside our healthcare system figure out such simple and elegant solutions to complex healthcare challenges that it makes me scratch my head and wonder why we always choose the hard way when an easy way might just be out there. I read two stories week that were enough to constitute a pattern for me. Scientific method? No. But that is, in a way, my point. Some of our healthcare system’s most complex and costly challenges might just have solutions rooted in ideas a child might have thought of, except in this case it was adults with open minds.
The first such example I saw, courtesy of the Journal of the Neurological Sciences via CBS Online News was about how a simple ruler and jar of peanut butter could be the key to diagnosing Alzheimer’s. I know the immediate inclination is to hit the “WTF?” button upon seeing that sentence, but the article made perfect sense once you read it. It turns out that one of the first things to go in people who have or are having the onset of Alzheimer’s is their sense of smell. By sticking a jar of peanut butter under the nose and measuring how far away it is when the person can smell it, it may well be possible to not only diagnose the disease without an autopsy or extremely expensive set of high tech diagnostic tests, but to predict who may be on their way to Alzheimer’s based on a declining sense of smell.
Do you know how much money goes into diagnostics for Alzheimer’s each year? Actually, I don’t know either and couldn’t get a good figure, but if you assume that many patients are diagnosed (inconclusively in many cases) by expensive imaging techniques, I am guessing it costs more than a jar of peanut butter. There will be about 14 million new Alzheimer’s cases by 2050, according to expert, so you could probably save a few hundred to a few thousand bucks per case if you substitute MRI and PET scans with jars of Skippy. I am assuming the ruler was obtained for free at the local hardware store during a do-it-yourself weekend sale.
The second article I saw, courtesy of Rock Health via MedCity News, was about how Florida Hospital Celebration Health did a study showing that if they asked their laparoscopic surgeons to play Super Monkey Ball video game for six minutes before scrubbing in for surgery, the surgeons made 37% fewer costly and dangerous medical errors. Holy Mario Brothers. If we could even come close to a 1/3 reduction in surgical errors by asking doctors to warm up the way athletes do, we would literally save billions of dollars and tens of thousands of lives every year. The risk, of course, is that surgeons would be late to the operating room because they were locked in a competitive Super Monkey Ball battle with their medical fellows, but the savings would be large enough that hospitals could hire teenagers to shut down the doctors in action by outplaying them when time is a-wasting.
I am not suggesting that all our healthcare challenges are easily solved with re-purposed consumer products, but ideas like these speak to the importance of creativity and out-of-the-box thinking inside a system long known for valuing process and custom over doing something a little crazy and seeing what happens (without dangerously using patients as guinea pigs, of course). People are actively debating whether healthcare’s problems must be solved by healthcare people or whether we need non-healthcare people to come in and tell us how to innovate. I’m not sure either extreme makes any sense to me and for sure the debate is a waste of time. What I do know is that no one who wishes to pursue true innovation should ever have to hear the dreaded phrase, “But that’s now how we have always done things,” or, even worse, “It’s too complicated to solve.”
I recently saw a fascinating company called Lift Labs that has also taken a non-traditional and “easy” approach to addressing the needs of Parkinson’s patients and others with severe tremors. Rather than invent a new drug or surgical intervention or other treatment that would take years of clinical study and regulatory drama, they invented a set of silverware the effectively cancels out/absorbs the tremor so people with this awful problem can feed themselves again, thus restoring independence and dignity. Once again, this is an elegant and somewhat simple solution addressing a huge problem in a highly creative way. I am not suggesting our scientists shouldn’t be trying to cure these diseases the “hard way”, but making simple, life altering changes for those that have them has a far better short term pay-off and is equally worthy of attention. What I like about this example is not that the product itself is easy (it is chock full of complicated technology actually), but that the approach to a big problem was to solve a basic, simple function of daily living that can have such a big impact on the cost of caring for patients and a patients’ own quality of life.
I do think that healthcare has much to learn from the traditional world of consumer products, where the customer is truly the center of the action and where the quality and problem-solving value of products and services are measured to within an inch of their life. Furthermore and back to my earlier point, consumer product idea generation is generally done by multi-disciplinary creative teams and not just so-called domain experts. This multi-disciplinary approach is worthy of note, as healthcare companies just don’t cut it when it comes to consumer satisfaction, ease of use or perceived brand value. It is true that healthcare is a “negative good” as my friend Dr. David Shaywitz says, meaning that consumers don’t want to spend their money on things related to health/sickness, but given the amount of money big healthcare companies spend on advertising, you would think they might do a little better with the public. I personally believe that it is the frustration of dealing with most of them, the lack of “easy,” that makes consumers so negative.
I thought it worthy of note that NewMediaMetrics released the results of its annual LEAP survey this week listing the 100 most-loved consumer brands and exactly one single healthcare product cracked the top 50, whereas tech products made up 50% of the top 25. And what was the “winning” healthcare product as voted by consumers? Excedrin (number 40). No doubt this product is popular, in part, because it helps cure the pain consumers feel when interacting with the healthcare system. There is not a single health system, hospital, insurance company, or anything close on the list at all. Johnson & Johnson, a multi-faceted healthcare company with both consumer and healthcare goods, made it to number 99.
As healthcare becomes more and more of a consumer game, particularly as consumers are driven to purchase their own health insurance or pay out of pocket for products and procedures they need and desire, it would behoove our healthcare friends to find the Easy Button and push it long and hard. A field with increasingly limited resources will favor simple, elegant solutions over Rube Goldberg machines every day of the week.