Customer Experience and Design

Healthcare Needs Disruptive Innovations in Meaning

I recently read the excellent Design Driven Innovation, Roberto Verganti’s fascinating take on how certain paradigm-shifting products and services are created. In it, he introduces the concept of “innovation in meaning,” which he contrasts throughout the book with “innovation in technology.” Here’s my high-level summary of the differences:

  • Innovation in technology: new electronics, parts, components, etc. that are smaller, cheaper, and more effective at accomplishing existing tasks and which may allow for new things to be accomplished
  • Innovation in meaning: new and different experiences that users have that redefine how, what, and why they do things

Innovations in meaning often result from inspirations drawn from situations where the context, if not the content, is similar to the area of concern. A great example that Verganti provides is of an Italian lamp manufacturer that worked with a renowned opera director to understand how light can influence human emotion and to in turn incorporate that understanding into the design of a new lamp.

Healthcare is filled with examples of innovation in technology but is relatively light on examples of innovation in meaning. Take diabetes management, for example. Technological innovations such as strips for testing blood sugar (first with urine and later with blood), single-use syringes, and portable glucose meters all made it easier for physicians to treat patients with diabetes. But these technological innovations alone were not enough to dramatically change the status quo in which diabetic patients were essentially at the mercy of the treatments given to them by their physicians.

That status quo was disrupted with the advent of diabetes self-management, something that was brought on by a radical innovation in meaning. In 1969, Richard K. Bernstein learned about a novel technology–the portable glucose meter. Bernstein, a diabetic and engineer at the time, became intrigued at the prospect of measuring and monitoring his own glucose. Leveraging his wife’s position as psychiatrist (sales of the monitors were restricted to medical personnel), Bernstein found a way around the status quo and obtained his own portable glucose monitor. Like any good engineer, Bernstein began frequently measuring his glucose levels and eventually became the first patient to self-adjust his diet and insulin dosage based on his blood glucose levels.

By applying the mentality of an engineer to the problem of diabetes, Richard Bernstein changed what it meant to be a patient living with diabetes. And while his innovation used a novel technology, the real breakthrough was in his taking ownership of his condition. Read more about Bernstein (who went on to become on influential physician) in this excellent article in the Journal of Participatory Medicine.

The healthcare industry–loaded with technology and filled with complexity and entrenched protocols–is ripe for the type of disruptive innovation in meaning exhibited by Richard Bernstein. Such innovation doesn’t require great technological breakthroughs–it simply requires a willingness to collaborate and to question the status quo. What does it really mean to be a patient, a healthcare practitioner, or a hospital administrator? What should “health insurance” actually cover? How should healthcare reimbursement work?

Of course, answering these questions and implementing the changes that the answers call for is often easier said than done.

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Christopher Monnier

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