Consumers have come to expect the same level of sophistication in their healthcare digital experiences as they encounter in their banking, shopping, entertainment, and social apps. Unfortunately, the healthcare industry continues to lag behind when it comes to digital innovation.
Why is that? All too often, the blame is placed squarely on regulatory restrictions. Yet other heavily regulated industries (such as financial services) have somehow managed to do it.
In short, regulatory concerns are no excuse for a subpar digital experience.
That’s not to say that all those layers of regulations don’t present a challenge. They do. The truth is, regulations carve out a pretty narrow avenue in which to compete. For example, you can’t offer more information than your competitors do; HIPAA regulations mean you have to play by the same rules as everyone else in the industry. Practically speaking, regulations make it harder to differentiate your offerings from those of your competitors.
But that reality only means it’s even more crucial that you nail your digital experience. After all, delivering a superior virtual customer experience is one of the few ways you really can differentiate your healthcare brand from the pack. And the best way to do that is by innovating at the level of your “digital front door.”
Take heart. It’s possible to pursue digital innovation in spite of — or even thanks to — regulatory restrictions.
Allow Regulations to Inspire Innovation in Your Digital Health Products
In his classic work The Mythical Man-Month: Essays on Software Engineering, Frederick Brooks Jr. argues that “…the external provision of an architecture enhances, not cramps, the creative style of an implementing group. They focus at once on the part of the problem no one has addressed, and inventions begin to flow.”
It’s a myth that outside constraints limit creativity. On the contrary, outside constraints form walls that define the parameters of any creative project. Rather than stifling inventive thinking, those walls give tech teams something concrete to problem-solve against. Put more simply, problems (not wide open spaces) are the jet fuel of innovation.
In the healthcare industry, regulations don’t just impact your product and service offerings. They also create boundaries for your digital properties, including your websites, member portals, and apps. (Right now, you’re probably most preoccupied with how to comply with the new interoperability standards.) Combine those regulatory concerns with outdated legacy systems, and it’s certainly understandable that so many healthcare organizations struggle to provide best-in-class digital experiences.
But you can — and must — find ways to innovate within the industry’s ever-changing regulatory guardrails. The first step is a shift in mindset. Rather than looking at regulatory requirements as yet another handicap to drag you down, your team should approach them as problems to be solved. The more creative your solutions, the more likely you are to innovate in ways that add up to a superior user experience.
Build a Team Fit for Digital Innovation in Healthcare
If your healthcare company is long established, chances are you’ve developed an engineering team whose primary focus is maintenance and efficiency — not innovation. That’s especially true if you rely on complex legacy systems to run your operations.
If that sounds familiar, you aren’t alone. The truth is that internal healthcare engineering teams are often a poor fit for innovation-minded digital initiatives because of the risk-averse nature of their everyday work.
But building an innovation-minded team is about more than just developing the right technical capabilities. After all, the success of technical innovation is about more than just the technology. In many cases, actually building the tech is the most straightforward piece of the puzzle. Many innovation projects go off the rails because of non-technical issues — things like mismatched skill sets, poor communication, lack of corporate support, office politics, changing priorities, etc.
So what does that mean for your healthcare organization? If you want to create a team that is custom-made for innovation, consider the following steps:
- Hire an innovation-minded self-starter CDO or CIO to spearhead digital innovation within your organization.
- Decouple your engineering resources. Your existing engineering team likely offers loads of value when it comes to maintaining systems and optimizing efficiencies. Let them do what they do best, and create a new division to tackle your innovation projects with speed and agility.
- Make sure to recruit (and empower) a strategic, capable digital project manager to keep your innovation initiatives in motion.
- If you decide to augment your capabilities by hiring an external digital partner, start by assessing your organization’s ability to be a good digital partner.
Predict (and Participate In) Healthcare-Related Regulations
It’s hard to innovate reactively. Rather than waiting for regulations to catch them by surprise, the most innovative healthcare organizations proactively anticipate where regulations are headed. Not only that, but they design digital experiences with those future constraints in mind.
It’s not terribly difficult to predict where healthcare regulations are going. For example, we know that the overarching MyHealtheData initiative is producing policies that aim to put patients at the center of data flows, both with payers and providers. The first question healthcare CIOs should be asking themselves is “how do we future-proof our systems and processes to be ready for those new policies?” But an even better question would be, “how do we get ahead of the regulations and build solutions that preempt what’s coming down the pike?” Strategies driven by questions like these are sure to earn your organization a competitive advantage.
The best way to predict the future is to create it. Many regulators leave ample time and opportunity for those in the industry to comment on proposed rules before they are finalized. For example, the 2020 ONC/CMS Interoperability rules were proposed in March 2019. Regulators gave commercial players a full year to submit comments and suggestions before finalizing the rules in March of 2020. Opportunities like that shouldn’t be wasted.
One thing is certain: Healthcare regulations may change, but they’ll always be a feature (not a bug) of the healthcare space. And that’s a good thing. Because regulations don’t just define the rules of the game; they offer fresh opportunities to innovate within the space. With the right strategy, your healthcare organization can go beyond compliance and leverage regulatory policies to establish a dominant position in the market.