Redefining America's Healthcare System



  • The problem isn't a lack of data, it's the usability of the information collected.
  • Existing EMR systems have been designed for billing — not treatment — and therefore don't improve patient outcomes.
  • The issue is to redefine the healthcare system, not just make it better.

Doctors, hospitals, and other healthcare players could learn a lot from the iPhone. That was the message from speakers at the McCombs Healthcare Initiative’s Fall Seminar, held November 7 at the McCombs School of Business. 

A smartphone won’t replace a scalpel or a stethoscope in a physician’s toolbox, but as the healthcare industry struggles to take advantage of the digital and mobile revolutions, speakers said, it could take cues from companies like Apple and Google. 

“Most really new ideas that redefine an industry come from outside that industry,” observed Luis Martins, Associate Management Professor at McCombs. In the case of healthcare, he said, “You can’t just take old processes and digitize them.”

Case in point: electronic medical records (EMR). The past few years, the federal government has spent $18 billion pushing doctors and hospitals to switch over from paper, but studies have yet to show big gains in efficiency. Many doctors complain it takes them extra time to enter data, with no improvement in patient care. 

“A lot of people are building things a lot of other people aren’t happy using,” says Martin. “Doctors didn’t go to medical school to go through menus.”

The problem isn’t lack of data, said Charles Barnett, retiring Executive Board Chair of the Seton Healthcare Family and new Executive-in-Residence at the Healthcare Initiative. Over the years, the industry has accumulated 150 exabytes of data (an exabyte being one trillion gigabytes) and discarded 90 percent of it immediately. 

“The problem is that the data now doesn’t create actionable information,” said Kavita Radhakrishnan, assistant professor at the UT School of Nursing. “It doesn’t help the clinician know what to do next.”

One obstacle is that most EMR systems are built for billing more than treatment, said Ed Anderson, professor of Information, Risk, and Operations Management at McCombs and research director of the Healthcare Initiative. “They’re not providing data for analytics. EMRs are nowhere near meeting the needs of clinicians.”

The missing link between docs and data might be applications, to make the data both useful and user-friendly. “You can order Chipotle on a smartphone, but you can’t get your own healthcare data,” noted McCombs graduate Colin Anawaty. He co-founded the smartphone app Patient IO, which gives patients mobile access to their care plans and helps doctors follow their progress.

How about an app to tell you what gallbladder surgery might cost? Sriram Vishwanath, UT professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, co-founded Accordion Health, which crunches Medicare claims data to project future medical expenses. 

“Our goal is for the consumer to have a Google-like interface that tells you about diagnoses, options, and costs,” said Vishwanath.

To make it easier to write and market such apps, there’s another missing link, said Geoffrey Parker, Management Science professor at Tulane University: digital platforms. Platforms are not always products themselves but rather systems that encourage entrepreneurs to create products. 

He pointed to Apple, which opens the iPhone’s operating system to any and all app developers and then provides an online store to sell their wares. Other platforms are the virtual marketplaces Amazon and eBay. “To be a platform,” said Parker, “a system must provide a useful function or service, and it must allow third-party access.” 

Where might an iOS or App Store for healthcare entrepreneurs come from? It might emerge from EMR firms like AthenaHealth, Cerner, or Epic, said Parker. But it could just as easily come out of an insurance company, a provider group, or even a drugstore chain, said Parker. “They all have customers, data, and billing relationships.”

Whoever creates such platforms will need to frame healthcare in new ways, said Reuben McDaniel, Health Care Management chair at McCombs. Like many-a-speaker, he invoked the example of the smartphone. “The iPhone is not a phone,” he said. “It’s a miniature computer. The issue is to redefine the healthcare system, rather just try to make it better.”


Photo Credit: jfcherry / Flickr Creative Commons

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Faculty in this Article

Edward Anderson

Professor and Director, McCombs Healthcare Initiative McCombs School of Business

Reuben McDaniel, Jr.

Charles and Elizabeth Prothro Regents Chair in Health Care Management McCombs School of Business

Reuben McDaniel, professor in the Department of Information, Risk, and...

Luis Martins

Professor, Management

Luis Martins earned his Ph.D. from the Stern School of Business at New York University. He conducts research on the cognitive underpinnings of...

Luis Martins teaches in the Texas Executive Education program, featuring open enrollment, custom and certificate classes for executives and organization teams.

About The Author

Steve Brooks

In a quarter-century as a journalist, Steve Brooks has won two Neal awards for excellence in trade reporting and a Press Club of New Orleans award...

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