Squashing the status quo – there's an app for that

June 1, 2014
There’s an excellent chance that you’re reading these words on a machine, and when you finish the article, you may want to share it with hundreds of friends and colleagues. You can easily call up loads of different applications and send it winging their way. Most smartphone owners have scores of apps at their fingertips, and can download others from Apple or Android’s app stores in a matter of seconds.

In the last decade, immense creativity and entrepreneurial drive have flourished in almost every information industry. You can download apps for everything from video games to astronomy. My question is this: How can we nurture a similar explosion of apps in healthcare? Every app, after all, is an attempt to solve a problem for a customer, or to deliver a service. We need the best brains of our generation focused on doing just that for healthcare. This is crucial. Unlike most other fields, ours has lives at stake. What’s more, we have an industry that threatens to consume our national economy, one that desperately needs efficiency and new tools (and to master the Internet). Plenty of tech visionaries, from AOL’s Steve Case to the leaders of Google, have attempted to colonize the hostile health care information economy, and have retreated, battered and bruised. 

What’s the trouble with healthcare? For starters, it’s not really a marketplace. There’s not much information at hand. It’s cloaked in mystery, and people don’t shop. They pay with insurance. 

But from an entrepreneur’s perspective, there’s another problem, too. The industry seems to be dominated by behemoths – big university hospitals, insurance giants, massive pharma companies, and the government. There are few accessible let alone nimble buyers in healthcare, and their purchasing decisions often appear to defy reason. Often the idea has to percolate through layers of bureaucracy. There are meetings, and lots of questions. Can it be incorporated into our legacy IT system? What are the risks? Let’s consult and have another meeting. Next month, perhaps? The system conspires against newcomers. So most of them turn away from healthcare. 

But some persist. Many of them are coming up with great apps to deliver better, faster medical care, and enhanced customer service. It’s by embracing these new approaches, and the efficiencies they deliver, that we can move on from the creaky old ways of healthcare and deliver the disruption this industry so desperately needs. 

At athenahealth, we’re doing what we can by providing access to some of the best healthcare apps to our network of more than 52,000 health care providers. And some of them are catching on. Naturally, the early markets for these start-ups are the small practices on the edges of the industry. Many of them have little in the way of legacy systems in place, and they’re eager to try a scheduling or customer-service app that they can download, in some cases, as easily as a new game on their phone. 

These small-fries on the fringes that are implementing new, inexpensive technology won’t be staying small for long. As they gain efficiencies and implement new customer-focused approaches, they’ll grow, grabbing market share from larger outfits that stick with health care’s tired status quo. 

At the same time, the successful app developers will grow. And while their first apps may have been very basic, even primitive, they’ll grow more sophisticated as they gain experience and insights from their customers. 

This is the nature of industry disruption. It starts with modest initiatives on the edges, where entrepreneurs are hungrier, unencumbered by the past, and in closer touch with their customers. They proceed to grow toward the heart of industry, with a few of them gaining control. Amazon is an insurgent turned titan in retail. Salesforce.com is pulling off a similar stunt in business software. And I guarantee we’re going to have similar success stories in health care. Outsiders using new technology will become household names. 

So, are you ready to embrace change? Let me make it a bit more specific. Can you imagine providing more timely information to customers? Reducing their waiting time? Overseeing their medications more efficiently? Are your doctors and other professionals getting all of the information they want and need at just the right moment? If the answer to any of these questions is no – and I’m betting it is – then you might try out some of these new apps. 

You might not see them now, but others are busy implementing them, and they’ll find it a lot easier to wrest away your customers if you stick with the status quo.

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