On Friday, June 29, at 5:42 a.m., I stood with my family on a Florida shore overlooking Kennedy Space Center. We had gathered with about a hundred other people to watch a rocket launch and were overwhelmed with excitement as the coastline erupted in fire, and the spacecraft lifted off toward the heavens. Standing there watching the spectacle, I couldn’t help but be caught up in the irony of the moment. Here we were, at the place where NASA sent the first Americans into space – on the very shores where the Apollo astronauts set off for the moon to plant our nation’s flag in the lunar dust in July of 1969. Yet now, almost 50 years later, this launch was profoundly different. The rocket wasn’t built by NASA, and the intention of its builders wasn’t exploration. This was a Falcon 9, built by SpaceX, a for-profit company founded by an enterprising billionaire. Most surprisingly, this relatively routine launch was intended to accomplish something that NASA – the United States’ own space agency – currently can’t do on its own: Launch rockets.
Since retiring the Space Shuttle in 2011, the United States has had to rely on others – including even Roscosmos (the Russian space agency) – to ferry passengers, satellites, and cargo into space. Seeing this opportunity in a multibillion-dollar industry, private enterprise has risen to the challenge, innovating more quickly and at a lower cost than “the establishment” has ever been capable of. As a result, space travel has been disrupted by corporations competing in a new “space race.” Instead of national pride or scientific dominance, this race has been fueled by profit and is quite similar to one being run in another industry: health care.
Just 1 day prior to watching the launch – on June 28 – we learned that Amazon had purchased PillPack, a prescription drug home delivery service. The stock market responded to the news, and the establishment (in this case CVS, Walgreen’s, and WalMart, among others) collectively lost $17.5 billion in one day. This isn’t the first time Amazon has disrupted the health care world; in January of this year, they, along with Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan Chase, announced a health care partnership to cut costs and improve care delivery for their employees. This move also sent shivers through the market, as health insurers and providers such as Aetna and United Health lost big on expectations that Amazon et al. wouldn’t stop with their own employees. Those of us watching this play out from the sidelines realized we were witnessing a revolution that would mean the end of health care delivery as we know it – and that’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially in the world of Electronic Health Records.
As you’ve probably noticed, it is quite rare to find physicians nowadays who love computers. Once an exciting novelty in health care, PCs have become a burdensome necessity and providers often feel enslaved to the EHRs that run on them. There are numerous reasons for this, but one primary cause is that the hundreds of disparate EHRs currently available sprouted out of health care – a centuries-old and very provincial industry – prior to the development of technical and regulatory standards to govern them. As they’ve grown larger and larger from their primitive underpinnings, these EHRs have become more cumbersome to navigate, and vendors have simply “bolted-on” additional features without significant changes to their near-obsolete software architecture.
It’s worth noting that a few EHR companies purport to be true innovators in platform usability, such as industry giant, Epic. According to CEO Judy Faulkner, Epic pours 50% of their revenue back into research and development (though, as Epic is a privately held company, this number can’t be verified). If accurate, Epic is truly an exception, as most electronic record companies spend about 10%-30% on improving their products – far less than they spend on recruiting new customers. Regardless, the outcome is this: Physician expectations for user interface and user experience have far outpaced the current state of the art of EHRs, and this has left a gap that new players outside the health care establishment are apt to fill.
Like Amazon, other software giants have made significant investments in health care over the past several years. According to their website, Apple has been working with hospitals, scientists, and developers to “help health care providers streamline their work, deliver better care, and conduct medical research.” Similarly, Google claims to be “making a number of big bets in health care and life sciences,” by leveraging their artificial intelligence technology to assist in clinical diagnosis and scientific discovery. In spite of a few false starts in the past, these companies are poised to do more than simply disrupt health care. As experts in user interface and design, they could truly change the way physicians interact with health care technology, and it seems like it’s no longer a question of if, but when we’ll see that happen.
The effort of SpaceX and others to change the way we launch rockets tells a story that transcends space travel – It’s a story of how new thinking, more efficient processes, and better design can disrupt the establishment. It’s worth pointing out that NASA hasn’t given up – they are continuing to develop the Space Launch System, which, when completed, will be the most powerful rocket in the world and be capable of carrying astronauts into deep space. In the meantime, however, NASA is embracing the efforts of private industry to help pave a better way forward and make space travel safer and more accessible for everyone. We are hopeful that EHR vendors and other establishment health care institutions are taking note, adapting to meet the needs of the current generation of physicians and patients, and innovating a better way to launch health care into the future.