Why health care needs a Steve Jobs-style disruptor

Steve Jobs would have turned 61 Wednesday had he been able to defeat the cancer that first laid claim to his pancreas and later his life.

As recounted in his sister Mona Simpson’s eulogy, even while the legendary Apple co-founder was intubated and unable to speak, he sketched iPad-friendly hospital bed designs and redrew the “not-quite-special-enough” cancer unit where he was being treated.

Simpson wanted us to know that cancer did not rob her brother of his incessant thirst for innovation. Even while ailing in the best of health care institutions, Jobs was reimaging ways to revamp their predictably unfriendly designs.

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His efforts are still sorely needed. Few industries yearn for a Jobs-style disruption as much as health care does today. With its labyrinths of regulation, deeply entrenched and antiquated information systems, and monopolies built upon thrones of indifference to the consumer experience, the health care industry has chained itself to archaic and inefficient processes while resisting its own rescue.

Jobs forced coup d’etats in every market he touched. Where is his reincarnation in health care? When will that entrepreneurial superhero sweep in to disrupt hospitals and clinics the way Jobs transformed personal computing, music, telecommunications, retail, and the mobile world?

We may not live to see another Steve Jobs. But his legacy of excellence through design has already provided the building blocks and tools for hungry and foolish souls striving to make health care easily accessible and intelligent.

I am one of those hungry and foolish souls. For the past five years, as both a practicing physician and the CEO of a digital health company, I’ve been listening to hospital executives doubt the power of digital technology to improve the broken and inefficient processes that impede the swift and effective delivery of optimal care. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard, “Your app looks good, but do you really expect our older patients to use a tablet in the waiting room?”

It turns out that they will. We have succeeded in transforming “waiting rooms” into “engagement rooms,” where patients are empowered with sharing their data in their own words literally through their fingertips. It also comes as a pleasant surprise to everyone when they find older adults adopting technology at higher rates than expected.

Jobs died before seeing the day that hospital beds included iPad holders, but his influence has already begun to germinate. Not necessarily through software or gadgets, but by way of his superlative design philosophy that created a generation of tech-savvy consumers.

The health care industry has largely resisted consumer-centric change. It can no longer ignore the rapidly growing population of mobile-powered patients who likely researched their condition on the Internet before their visit.

These patients, especially the massive population of millenials, want to book appointments using their smartphones and securely message their health providers between visits. They want to skip the travel time and see their doctors through e-visits wherever possible. They aren’t as docile as the traditional forces of health care once viewed as “patients.”

More and more doctors are also seeking apps to improve the quality of care they provide while not disrupting the deeply intimate nature of the patient-doctor relationship. Electronic health record companies are often criticized by remarkably dissatisfied physician users pointing to broken and clunky interfaces. This isn’t surprising when the majority of these doctors routinely flip between a pixel-perfect iPhone for personal matters and a 10-year-old desktop running a mainframe style interface for patient care.

Our data-driven world is forcing outcomes-based care to the forefront. In doing so, we’re beginning to realize the incredible possibilities of acknowledging the time — almost every minute of every day — when individuals aren’t in front of their doctor. During that time they are interacting with apps, sensors, and passive data collection that create information desperately waiting to find a home in a new model for health records.

It’s hard to not imagine Jobs’s ghost grinning behind individuals who refuse to accept that they can’t own their health records, chock full of app- and sensor-derived information, and store and access it on the capable smartphone faithfully nestled in a pocket or purse.

At some point, we will likely stop remembering Steve Jobs on his birthday. But we won’t stop being empowered by his legacy. His American-dream life story served as a potent reminder that we should never settle for the status quo, that everything can and should be made better. Jobs’s spirit still imbues health care. By simply trusting it, and applying his vision for design to health care, we can make it easier, friendlier, and better for all.

Damon Ramsey, MD, is a practicing physician, health care futurist, and co-founder of InputHealth, an award-winning digital health company that connects patients and physicians through the Collaborative Health Record. You can follow him on Twitter.

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