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Got Velcro?

December 18, 2012
by Mark Hagland
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Heading into 2013, the healthcare industry could use the ingenuity of inventors like George de Mestral

Heading into 2013, I thoroughly enjoyed a short article in the Nov. 11 New York Times Magazine entitled “Who Made That?” In the article, Pagan Kennedy writes, “In 1941, a Swiss engineer named George de Mestral returned from a hunting trip with burs clinging to his pants and tangled in his dog’s coat. When de Mestral examined the seedpods under a microscope,” Kennedy notes, “he marveled at how they bristled with hooks ingeniously shaped to grasp at animal fur. Most people stop at the ‘Oh, that’s cool, that’s what nature does,’” says Janine Benyus, a pioneer in the field of biomimicry, the science of studying natural models—anthills and lizard feet, say—to solve human problems.

But de Mestral went much farther; and of course, because of his curiosity, we have Velcro. I remember, myself, personally discovering Velcro as a child, and finding it quite fascinating. But what I want to focus on here is not the inherently interesting quality of Velcro, as delightful as that is; rather, it is the human ingenuity that looks, observes, and applies observations to problems, and comes up with novel solutions.

That’s exactly the kind of spirit that is being brought to bear in innumerable situations these days in the healthcare and healthcare IT world, and honestly, such spirit is needed now more than ever before. With healthcare costs inevitably increasing because of the aging of the U.S. population and a continuing climb in the prevalence of chronic illnesses, our nation’s healthcare cost trajectory is unsustainable.

But many of the innovations being pioneered across the U.S. healthcare system—accountable care, bundled-payment contracts, the patient-centered medical home, alternatives to hospitalization, evidence-based care strategies—are already reaping rewards, both under federal and state auspices, and across the private healthcare sector, and with very impressive results.

This month’s cover story package contains two articles that look at the challenges facing those who would truly integrate inpatient and outpatient clinical care and other information systems, and the emerging role of the chief integration officer in healthcare IT. Building workable bridges across the inpatient-outpatient IT divide remains exceptionally complex and difficult, but offers tremendous potential to improve care delivery community-wide and even healthcare system-wide.

More broadly, the shift towards a new population health-based focus, and towards authentic care management, is requiring not only bridges across the divide between care locations, but also intensive work to develop care delivery and management models healthcare system-wide. It goes without saying that this is difficult work; yet the leaders at many pioneering organizations are powering ahead, forging new paths without waiting for anyone to direct them to the new healthcare. And of course, they’re building new information systems and IT capabilities to support their innovations.

In that regard, we’ll be hosting a very exciting event this spring: our third annual Healthcare Informatics Executive Summit, to be held May 15-17, 2013 in San Francisco. We’ll have both lecture-style presentations and panel discussions on a very broad range of topics, from population health and analytics, to the implementation of system-wide dashboards to support readmissions reduction, to private-sector ACO development. Here’s the link to our microsite:

So as we close our calendars on 2012 and open them to 2013, there has never been a time when ingenuity and invention were more needed than now. Fortunately, our healthcare system is blessed with countless George de Mestrals. So while there are challenges galore, there are also opportunities aplenty. Here’s to 2013—and to the as-yet inventions that will be the new versions of Velcro.

Mark Hagland