The Cutting Edge of Health Care

A new tool reveals patterns of innovation in industry. We examine eight ideas that hold high promise for transforming health care

Health care in the U.S. is the problem that knows no solution. With providers, insurers, employers, and consumers often at war, the patient's experience has become confusing, worrisome, and even dangerous—medical mistakes kill some 100,000 people a year. At the same time, innovation in health care is richer than in most other industries, but how new ideas are implemented varies widely in America and around the globe.

To examine the potential for change, BusinessWeek has joined with the Chicago-based innovation consulting firm Doblin (a member of consultancy Monitor Group). Larry Keeley, co-founder and president of Doblin, has pioneered a tool, Innovation Portraits, that reveals patterns of innovation in a specific industry. Of the many possibilities, we examine eight that are fermenting swiftly and hold high promise for transforming health care. They were chosen because of their intensity, measured by the number of innovations in a specific area, and their importance, determined by the impact the innovations could have on the practice of medicine.


Hospital errors cost huge amounts in dollars—and lives. Integrated digital records can guide doctors and nurses in their practice and help avoid mistakes. Digital health records can also provide better medical and family histories and improve accuracy of medicines and dosages. The challenge: safeguarding privacy.


New models for providing inexpensive hospital care are being developed in Mexico, India, Singapore, and other locales. Medical "tourism," traveling overseas where procedures cost less, is growing with support from insurance companies. Nearly 200,000 Americans had procedures outside the country in 2007. The challenge: maintaining safety standards.


"Concierge medicine," paying $20,000 to $30,000 or more annually to guarantee premium medical care, is a growing healthcare service for the wealthy. Because of the high costs, medical innovations often start with the rich then move to the mass market as prices fall. The challenge: bringing down costs.


Better diagnostic tools pinpoint factors that are likely to cause problems for a specific patient or population. Genetic research can predict which diseases a person may be susceptible to, and biomarkers can help doctors assess health conditions. The challenge: changing the policy of insurers to stop curtailing coverage of people with "bad" genes.


The Holy Grail of modern medicine, tailoring care to individuals, holds the promise of radically transforming health-care delivery. Customized medicine is currently costly and complex. The challenge: raising funds to advance genomics to areas beyond cancer therapies.


With globalization, disease is spreading ever faster. Using huge computing power to track outbreaks would facilitate responses before illnesses cross continents. Using cell phones, villagers could notify disease control authorities and supply data for tracking. The challenge: staying ahead in an integrating world.


Changing the health and wellness behaviors of various demographic groups requires knowledge of their cultures and pro grams designed to accommodate them. Example: obesity that can lead to diabetes. Treatments sensitive to varying customs can deliver more efficient care.


Smoking, stress, overeating, and other behaviors can lead to chronic conditions that cost societies huge sums. Smart, focused programs, often delivered at the workplace, can help people sharply increase their health and well-being while reducing long-term care costs for corporations and government.

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