Frugal Innovation: Healthcare’s Answer to Transformation?

Often, innovation and technology are thought of as the same thing. But, aren’t there ways to innovate that aren’t tied to huge investments in the latest and greatest technology? Innovation isn’t only about “stuff,” it’s also about looking at new or different approaches that can move the needle on productivity and other outcomes.

Along these lines, a recent Becker’s Health IT article caught my attention. The subject was “frugal innovation,” the idea of doing more with less. The healthcare industry is particularly primed to take a serious look at frugal innovation. As the author Akanksha Jayanthi writes:

Creation and growth tend to be linked with innovation. But this capacity of endless creation and growth also requires endless resources, which the healthcare industry just doesn’t have.

I think she is absolutely correct. Ms. Jayanthi also notes that frugal innovation is most typically discussed in the context of emerging countries and economies, because their lack of resources requires them to find new ways to do things. As we in healthcare face our own constraints including reimbursement models and new care delivery demands, we can actually learn a lot from frugal innovation. However, to fully embrace frugal innovation, the healthcare industry must “sever ties that equate innovation with creation.”

Anthony Chang, MD, chief intelligence and innovation officer of Children’s Hospital of Orange County in Orange, CA, says, “Innovation in healthcare should not be technology looking for a use, but rather a smarter use of technology.”

Ms. Jayanthi and some of the other sources she quotes in her article, specifically reference Lean management strategies as an example of frugal innovation. Lean thinking changes the focus of management from optimizing separate technologies, assets and vertical departments to optimizing the flow of products and services through entire value streams that flow horizontally across technologies, assets, and departments to customers. Which ultimately, is about creating value for the patient.

Innovation is the introduction of something new, which can often, but not always, involve new technology. Sometimes it’s the introduction of a new approach to a given situation that can improve what we deliver to patients. Either way, following lean management principles will help get the most out of innovation in any form it takes.

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