Earlier in my career, when the Internet was a relatively new thing, I was fortunate to be part of an exciting movement. My colleagues and I designed new digital solutions for patients, particularly decision support tools that enabled people to make informed choices about their health care. Three or four years into our work, I was invited to a big summit at a large Silicon Valley company. There were thousands of attendees in the auditorium when the CEO gushed about the exciting new projects underway, larger scale versions of the innovations that we had pioneered: but with no acknowledgement to those of us who had primed the pump. It was the first time I heard the saying: “The pioneers get the arrows, the settlers get the land”.
Last week, I attended HIMMS, the huge health IT conference, where folks come together to show off their latest products and to talk about the state of the profession. It was a sea of suits…women were vastly underrepresented, tech geeks were nowhere to be found, and most of the innovative companies were stuck in the back of the exhibition hall. And it was déjà vu: the bigger companies were racing to sell the products that the visionaries had designed, and I was reminded that dreamers may plant the seeds, but the corporate entities reap the profits after they buy the farm.
I don’t mention this to complain, and I’m not naïve: I understand that this is how things work. Innovators and inventors are usually not the people who thrive in a boardroom, or in corporate jobs. Entrepreneurs (and I identify as one) are people who love new ideas, are energized by the process of figuring out what works and why, and thrive at the edge of new possibilities. In our hearts, it’s not about the glory or the money. What I worry about is that when good ideas are implemented, they’re too often diluted, so that the original intent is lost in the attempt to create another revenue stream. Health care innovation should be about creating ways to improve the health care experience, to ensure that the patient gets the care they deserve. When the corporations get involved, it too often becomes about the profit. I’d prefer a scenario where we simultaneously accomplish both.