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The line between radicalism and realism in healthcare

Is it possible to be too radical in one’s thinking when it comes to changing healthcare? I guess with most things there is likely a fine line. Let’s dissect our words for a second:


adj \ˈra-di-kəl\

3a : very different from the usual or traditional : extreme b : favoring extreme changes in existing views, habits, conditions, or institutions c : associated with political views, practices, and policies of extreme change d : advocating extreme measures to retain or restore a political state of affairs <the radical right>


noun \ˈrē-ə-ˌli-zəm\

1: concern for fact or reality and rejection of the impractical and visionary

Breaking from the usual tradition in healthcare is not a rare thing. In fact, we see this happening more and more in our communities.

In an excellent series on innovation in healthcare, the Harvard Business Review wrote a story on “Radically rethinking healthcare delivery”. An excerpt from that piece really spoke to why radical thinking in redesigning healthcare was appropriate:

“What we describe as a “health care system” is no system at all. It’s a collection of fragmented, non-communicating parts, implicitly dangerous in design. During an average four day hospital stay, a patient sees 24 different clinicians and administrators; when a physician places an order for medications in a hospital, there are seventeen steps between when that order is given and when the medication reaches the patient’s bedside – all opportunities for error. And this complexity happens within a single health care delivery organization. When multiple physicians, clinics, hospitals – and insurance companies – are involved in the care of a patient, the complexity can be overwhelming, both for the patient and clinicians.”

Everywhere we look in healthcare there seems to be opportunities for radical change. When electronic medical records rolled on to the scene, they were viewed as disruptive and radical. Now look at where we are with the adoption of these tools. One needs to look no further than the wonderful website and resource put out by AHRQ on innovations in healthcare. But the question remains – are these ideas radical?

For a moment let’s compare healthcare and radicalism to a biological system.

Biological systems function smoothly in homeostasis – they are self regulating and static. Frequently something perturbs that biological system, throws it out of homeostasis, and creates an imbalance. While homeostasis most often is used to describe biological creatures, the message is applicable to healthcare.

When someone in the healthcare system identifies a threat, a perturbation, and attempts to reset to achieve homeostasis, or a balance (read status quo), they “fight” the change. Active perturbation is not comfortable if you are the person being disrupted. Radicalism in healthcare often is disruptive.

Now consider making a change in healthcare on level with a perturbation that is so strong it forces change. Is it possible to have this change be so significant that in essence it creates a new balance, a new baseline for homeostasis?

“Supposedly, everyone working in health care wants the same thing: to help people get and stay healthy. “Everyone” includes primary care doctors, medical specialists, nurses, hospital administrators, health insurance providers, nutritionists, pharmaceutical companies, medical technology manufacturers, fitness gurus, paraprofessionals, public health commissioners, and charities dedicated to a disease The problem is that everyone can have a different view of the meaning of getting and staying healthy. Lack of consensus among players in a complex system is one of the biggest barriers to innovation. One subgroup’s innovation is another subgroup’s loss of control.”

The above quote is another piece from the Harvard Business Review and really hits the nail on the head for radical change in healthcare – for healthcare to change, one “subgroup” will need to lose control. Not everyone can be a winner when you are redesigning a system like healthcare, someone is bound to lose. The problem now, with the current system, is that it is often the community that loses.

Isn’t it time we start to think slightly more radical in how we can redesign healthcare? Do we want to incrementally play it safe through a piecemeal approach to redesign? Are we bound by realism and therefore unable to be radical? Where is the line?

After all, the IOM said it best: “the healthcare system is incapable of meeting the present, let alone future needs of the American public”

What do we really have to lose through being radical that we haven’t already lost?