February 19, 2016

Items found in the doctor's office

What you might find in the doctor's office. Credit: William Patrick Butler / Flickr Creative Commons

Our healthcare system faces lots of challenges, and some aren’t purely medical. Costs are more than most of us want to pay – and more than many companies can afford.

One potential solution is to have businesses like Intel - that have nothing to do with healthcare - redesign it.

Lindsay Martin, the executive director of innovation at the Institute for Healthcare Improvement, says that healthcare costs seem to be slowing a bit, but they’re likely still taking a hefty bite out of your paycheck.

“It feels uncontrollable,” says Martin. “CEOs and employers don’t feel like they fully understand why costs are continuing to rise… It’s the reason we’re seeing that wages stay flat in a lot of places, but benefits continue to increase.”

About a decade ago, the semiconductor chip maker Intel realized that their healthcare costs had spiraled up into the stratosphere. They were on track to triple, which would require the company to spend a billion dollars insuring workers.

So Intel started to wonder what would happen if they approached medicine the way they approached their assembly lines – which would mean some major streamlining.

Of course, they couldn’t address every medical problem this way, but – when they looked closely – some of the ailments their employees suffered from seemed to keep popping up over and over and over.

“Problems like low back pain, where it affects a lot of people, especially people who are on a plant floor... and what we know we need is to get people into physical therapy,” says Martin. Then Intel worked with doctors and healthcare systems to adopt cheaper, faster, better ways to address these issues.

In the case of low back pain, getting a referral for physical therapy isn’t always easy; Intel changed that.

“My care shouldn’t differ if I have a broken leg based on the clinic that I walk into, the hospital where I’m receiving care or the provider. There are some things that can be standardized and that makes care safe”

Intel is unusual, because they harnessed their healthcare buying power and altered the system. But Martin believes that corporate rethinking of healthcare is only in its infancy. Other companies are beginning to wade in.

“I think as with a lot of change, we take ideas from other places and try to apply it internally. There’s a lot to be learned from within healthcare, but also outside of healthcare. Look at what Intel was able to do by taking what they know… and applying it to healthcare, which is not their business.”

Business, Lindsay Martin, health care, science and tech

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