Have a Better Idea To Improve Health Care?

Harvard launches an open competition to promote already proven innovations that could increase the quality and lower the cost of health care.
by Carmen Nobel

Several months ago, Harvard's Forum on Health Care Innovation surveyed industry executives, policy makers, academics, and doctors about the state of health care in the United States.

Their report card was not encouraging. Only 14 percent of respondents felt "strongly positive" about the current system, while 20 percent felt "strongly negative." The feedback resulted in a call to arms, a report that detailed five imperatives to improve the situation.

Among these imperatives: the need to integrate newly developed approaches into established organizations, which may not be aware that many of these innovations exist. (The remaining imperatives: Make value the central objective; promote novel approaches to process improvement; make consumerism really work; and decentralize approaches to problem solving.)

"Health care, in terms of cost and quality, does not lack for new ideas, it lacks for dissemination of ideas," says Richard G. Hamermesh., MBA Class of 1961 Professor of Management Practice at Harvard Business School, and a faculty steering committee member of the Forum, which is a joint collaboration between HBS and Harvard Medical School.

"One thing we've learned is that in almost all aspects of health care delivery, there are places that are doing it very well. If we were all doing all these things, we could reduce the cost of health care by 30 percent."

“Health care does not lack for new ideas, it lacks for dissemination of ideas”

In the interest of fostering widespread adoption of successful health care ideas, the Forum has launched the Health Acceleration Challenge, a competition meant to identify and promote proven innovations that, if more broadly disseminated, could increase the quality and access—and lower the cost—of health care delivery in the United States.

To qualify, innovations must be deployed actively in at least one setting, and applicants must be able to show credible evidence that the idea is valuable. Otherwise, the sky's the limit.

"I really want to emphasize that we want ideas from everywhere," Hamermesh says. "You don't have to be an academic medical center. You don't have to be from Boston, Los Angeles, or Houston. You don't need to be affiliated with Harvard. A winning idea could be from anywhere."

Ideas submitted so far include a tool for crowdsourcing medical diagnoses; a system for emergency room follow-up care; and a cost/benefit analysis program for health care providers.

Innovations will be judged on the basis of their impact on cost, quality, or access to health care; evidence of initial success; and the extent to which applicants have created clear dissemination plans. The judging panel will choose finalists who will share $150,000 and the opportunity to present their ideas at the Forum's invitation-only conference in April 2015, which attracts senior executives from big pharma, for-profit and non-profit hospitals, major insurance companies, and several other areas of the health care industry.

Senior members of the Harvard faculty will create case studies about each of the finalists, and will teach the cases at the conference. Conference attendees will be expected to provide input on the ideas. "It's not just about getting a lot of high-level people into one room," Hamermesh says. "It's about having an impact."

The Forum is accepting applications through September 29 at its Health Acceleration Challenge website . All submissions will be open to the public and include , include a comment section.

The idea is not only to discover novel ideas, but to build on them. To that end, public feedback is strongly encouraged, including ideas from seemingly unrelated industries.

"Sometimes the best ideas on how to improve something that already exists come from someone who doesn't have related experience," Hamermesh says. "Knowledge plus naiveté is a very good combination for innovation."

While the Forum is eager to unearth and promote the best innovations in health care, the bigger goal is to get other industry organizations to follow suit.

"Our biggest hope is that this challenge will generate enough buzz that it will get others thinking in these terms," Hamermesh says. "In most industries, there's a much higher push to adopt best practices, and they get disseminated very quickly. That's not yet the case in health care."

About the Author

Carmen Nobel is the senior editor of Harvard Business School Working Knowledge.