Do Experts Slow Innovation?

Innovation – everyone says they want it, but when it’s time to personally embrace it and change what they do everyday there is often reluctance, if not outright resistance.


In Doctors Slow to Embrace Telemedicine, Cloud Computing, Information Week’s Nicole Lewis reported the findings of CompTIA’s 3rd Annual Healthcare IT Insights and Opportunities Study. As the title indicates there is a gap between what technology can do and what the experts will do.

By its most basic definition, telemedicine is the use of information communications technology to diagnose, treat or otherwise provide information to improve a patient’s health status. From video conferencing to creative uses of smart phones to more sophisticated systems that can collect physical vitals from a patient far from a clinician, telemedicine has been around for nearly 50 years in one form or another. Whether older adults on the islands off Scotland’s coast, or rural elders in the townships of Maine and the villages of Africa, the aging populations who require care are more likely to be the furthest from it. Given the obvious benefits in reaching remote populations, telemedicine should, by now, be simply called…well, ‘medicine’.

But it isn’t yet. According to the CompTIA survey, only 14% of the healthcare respondents actively follow news in telemedicine – over 2.5 times more of those actively interested expressed little interest in the topic (37%). Perhaps more striking is that only one in 10 said they intend to use videoconferencing (the now-common tool teenagers use to do homework and socialize into the wee hours of the night) with a patient.

This is just one study. However, research conducted by my students and others in the field has shown a similar pattern that new technology often fails to be translated into innovation, not because the technology is ineffective or because the end user or beneficiary (i.e., the patient) is reluctant, but because those who are currently ‘experts’ in practice do not embrace its adoption.

Before everyone joins in on the now popular pastime of blaming clinicians for everything from high costs to poor care, we should consider the following: According to the dictionary, an expert is “a person who has special skill or knowledge in some particular field; specialist; authority.” Special skill and knowledge is acquired through learning and practice. What may be assumed but is not always realized, is that experts must aggressively continue learning new knowledge; adjusting their skills to changes in technology, systems and even public expectations, to remain expert. Given the speed of technological advance and knowledge creation, experts have to invest more time and more effort than ever before just to provide care let alone adopt new methods – well beyond the capabilities of most current continuing professional education programs. Even newly minted MDs and RNs are graduating with scant knowledge of how telemedicine should be used and how it might produce benefits beyond closing the distance gap between care and patient. There is only so much that you can squeeze into a crowded four years of medical and nursing curricula.

Clinician adoption of telemedicine is only one example of ‘where there is a need, there is a technology’, but it represents an ironically growing innovation gap that may disproportionately affect an aging society. There are others. Financial advisors, for example, have great expertise in retirement planning but are having difficulty redefining their business as longevity planning. Moreover, the tools of client engagement have changed. Retirement planners have traditionally relied on discussions around the family coffee table on a Saturday morning to plan the future – but today’s 24/7 on-the-move family requires online information sharing, mobile finance, and even apps that engage today’s behaviors in real-time while affecting investment income tomorrow. Thinking about renovating your home? There are plenty of contractors with expertise to build your dreams with passion and vision, but few that have adopted universal design standards or even fluency in the range of home features that may help you age independently and at home for a lifetime.

Innovating old age requires more than technology. It requires new thinking of how and what we teach next generation professionals; new practices of how we stay current and integrate new technologies into innovative services; and even the development of new professions we have yet to envision, who will use technologies we have yet to invent to take care of older adults yet to be born. 

Image from Shutterstock.

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