Stirring up healthcare’s melting pot

28th April 2014

They’re calling it Moon Shots – a plan to accelerate development of cancer-fighting drugs. And for Ronald DePinho, the challenge is as much organisational as it is scientific. But he’s not alone. Many argue that in order to meet the avalanche of demand for healthcare that lies ahead, the sector must get much better at team working.

“It’s about the ecosystem that’s needed to go beyond discovery,” says DePinho, president of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Centre. The Moon Shots programme, which it launched in 2012, brings together biologists, clinical researchers and industry drug developers, as well as the policy makers and education professionals who can help change public behaviour.

But this kind of collaborative effort is working against a system that is highly compartmentalised. “It celebrates the individual as opposed to the team,” says DePinho.

Graeme Currie, a Warwick Business School professor, agrees. “There’s a degree of self interest at stake,” says Currie, who is head of the Organising Healthcare Research Network.

As a result, while medical science has permitted astonishing advances from high-precision radiation treatment to facial reconstruction using 3D printing, healthcare delivery systems often remain cumbersome and inefficient.

Technology has yet to bring to the sector the customer service revolution seen in industries such as retail or aviation, and the fragmented, siloed nature of the industry is a further barrier to collaboration.

“The consumer or user is very awkwardly called a patient, and the healthcare user has no input into the delivery system or the insurance system,” says Regina Herzlinger, a Harvard Business School professor known for her research in healthcare. “And when sectors are not consumer driven they become very sclerotic.”

Policy can also act as a barrier to different ways of working. “In the UK, it’s a very centrally controlled system with a lot of performance indicators so it encourages compliance rather than learning and innovation,” says Currie.

A variety of initiatives are now being launched to try and break down these barriers to innovation and collaboration. For MD Anderson, the Moon Shots programme is one response.

Meanwhile, Unitedhealth Group invites senior executives from the IT sector to its innovation days. “We have speakers who are really out of the box for healthcare,” says Jack Larsen, chief executive of UnitedHealthcare Medicare & Retirement. “It’s been very powerful.”

Business schools can also play a role in fostering the cross-fertilisation of capabilities in healthcare. At Warwick Business School, teams taking part in the International Healthcare Case Competition are made up not only of MBA students, but also individuals from other university departments such as science, engineering or medicine.

Teamwork is a key element of the Mooc (massive open online course) on Innovating in Healthcare that Herzlinger launched this year as part of edX, the university’s online learning platform. She argues that current teaching reinforces the individualistic, siloed approach to healthcare DePinho, Currie and others and working to change.

“To teach entrepreneurial education, you not only have to merge a lot of knowledge sets but you also have to foster team capabilities,” she says.

To help students build teams, Herzlinger and her colleague Svetlana Dostenko developed Project Lever, a matchmaking service connecting students with others who have the skills they need for their projects. A map of the world on which students place themselves helps them figure out whether proposed members are on time zones close enough to make teamwork viable.

Herzlinger believes greater collaboration is essential to fostering the business model innovation that will be needed as the pressure intensifies to cut healthcare costs while delivering higher-quality care. In the US, the Affordable Care Act and its shift of emphasis of care delivery from volume to value, reinforces this pressure.

The question, however, is whether individuals and organisations in the sector can make the cultural shifts needed for the team approach to take hold.

DePinho argues that change is not an option. “You can’t manage your way out of that problem via efficiency,” he says.

And while technology has the power to transform the sector, the human, organisational element remains critical. “It takes a village of knowledge and capabilities to organise the effort to go from the beginning to the end of the problem,” says DePinho.


Here, I invite my interviewees to name a favourite charity and – in the spirit of Mixing It Up – a favourite cocktail.

Ronald DePinho

Charity: MD Anderson Cancer Centre

Cocktail: a glass of Brunello wine from Piedmont

Graeme Currie

Charity: The Ear Foundation

Favourite cocktail: Vesper Martini

Regina Herzlinger

Charity: Alzheimer’s Research

Cocktail: a glass of Pinot Grigio

Jack Larsen

Charity: Second Harvest

Cocktail: Bombay Sapphire gin and tonic with extra lime