A recent question on social media caught my attention. A well respected and prominent physician entrepreneur posed a question that essentially asked about the qualifications and thereby value of a Health futurist. Most people who responded regarded futurists somewhere between used car salesmen and outright charlatans. It is true, futurist, innovator, thought leader, healthcare disrupter and other terms like these are often over used and meaningless, Not all innovation is disruptive. Many solutions hailed as disruptive, simply not. Many “visionary” leaders are simply taking the most logical next steps, before anyone else does. Having spent almost the last 30 years of my life in healthcare, I have and continue to see a stunning amount of inability among traditional healthcare leaders to apply anything beyond an incrementalist vision to health innovation and the future. This is true even among many who claim to be futurists and disruptive innovators!! Because healthcare is increasingly becoming a market based and driven sector, continuing to have 17+ year product life cycles (as has been reported to be common in healthcare) to get innovations (new drugs, practice enhancements, care delivery models, etc.) from the bench to the bedside and beyond, is simply not sustainable, especially when other sectors (and increasingly competitors) are moving much faster. Those individuals who have the background, experience and ability to provide more than incremental insights, can help traditional healthcare organizations, practitioners and researchers better understand the perspectives of working under these emerging realities. This knowledge and insight can equip healthcare leaders to make decisions that better align with the broader market and societal forces that are impacting their profession. Ultimately, these leaders will be the ones most likely to be able to pivot and thrive in the healthcare sector of tomorrow, not just the healthcare sector of yesterday and today.
Sure, predicting the future accurately and consistently is hard, if not impossible. However, understanding the challenges and opportunities that will likely present themselves in the future, is a matter of clearly defining current needs in the context of societal trends and thinking through these challenges from multiple perspectives with the explicit goal of conceptualizing previously unrecognized solutions. It is not magic. It is a skill, albeit a particularly complex one, that can be developed, like any other skill. The most difficult challenge to mastering this skill, is the fact that healthcare is a complex and ever-changing system, with many moving parts. Most people who work in healthcare have specialized skill in one area. Very few have specialized skill in two areas or disciplines. So while they may be experts in their area, they are limited in their ability to see the issues from the multiple perspectives impacting healthcare. Also, given the conservative nature of the health sciences, incrementalism is rewarded, in research and practice. As such, many healthcare leaders spend a lot of time staying on top of their field, but they are often not able to keep up with broader societal changes that are impacting their profession. The very thing that made them an expert (specialization) is also making it less likely that they can be the best futurists or the most disruptive innovators. On the other hand, those individuals who are better at “seeing” important societal trends and helping leaders execute effectively, become known as the futurists. The world of health really is changing all around us. If your health organization is interested in surviving, it really has no other choice but to think hard about the future. Fundamentally, leaders have a choice, they can either respond to the future, or help to shape it. Can your organization benefit from a health futurist? Maybe. It really depends on you.