August 5, 2021 | Net Health

4 min read

Incremental or Disruptive Innovation: Driving Patient Safety

You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone in the healthcare industry who doesn’t agree that innovation should be a critical component of any healthcare company’s ongoing strategy. However, when you start to segment the innovation discussion down into the subcategories of incremental vs. disruptive, the discussion gets a bit more complex—and for good reason.

Anytime we change the way we interact or treat patients, the number one concern is patient safety. With incremental innovation generally producing a smaller deviation from the status quo, it’s understandable to assume that the risk to patient safety may be lower. And many take the assumption a step further by assuming that the relationship between incremental and disruptive change as it relates to patient safety is directly correlated. In other words, if less or slower change equals less risk to patient safety, then more or faster change must equal more risk to patient safety.

But is that really the case? In a recent webinar titled Modern Healthcare Innovation Leaders, several key leaders in the healthcare space discussed the relationship between incremental and disruptive innovation in the industry. Here are a few of the key takeaways from part of that discussion.

The Reality of What Disruptive Innovation Is

Often, disruptive innovation is viewed as a radical change to the status quo that wildly shakes up the way things are done in an industry. However, this popularly held definition of disruptive innovation differs from the way many who study innovation define it—and the differences are impactful.

The late Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen, a highly regarded researcher on innovation, defined disruptive innovation as a “process by which a product or service takes root initially in simple applications at the bottom of a market and then relentlessly moves up market, eventually displacing established competitors”.

The way he defines it, there’s no talk of radical, wild, outlandish changes. Rather, the change takes root in a simple application and then works its way through the industry to eventually change the way things have always been done. Generally, innovation is broken down into four categories—sustaining, disruptive, incremental, and radical. And what seems to happen a lot with disruptive innovation is that it gets miscategorized as radical innovation.

As you might already be seeing, what may seem like a small semantics difference actually has a big impact on the effects on patient safety. There’s nothing wrong with radical innovation, but breakthrough technologies that often create brand new markets (radical innovation) do come with a lot more risks than changes to an existing market that eventually work to reshape the way things are done (disruptive innovation).

The Portfolio Approach

With a clearer understanding of what disruptive innovation really is, would it be wrong to solely chase the more impactful disruptive innovations over incremental innovations? The answer to this great question is best explained through two analogies—one from baseball and one from investing.

In baseball, you’d never say that you only want to hit home runs. You’d never say that you don’t want singles, doubles, and triples. It wouldn’t make any sense. Because to get to the home runs that have a more disruptive impact on the total score, you’d need to increase things like your batting average, time to impact, bat angle, swing speed, etc. You’d need these incremental innovations in your game to position yourself to reach the more disruptive home runs.

In other words, incremental and disruptive innovations go hand in hand. Anyone who says they’re solely searching for disruptive innovations may not fully understand what they’re looking for.

Additionally, there are advantages of simultaneously seeking both types of innovation in the healthcare space. In a financial portfolio, money managers look to balance risk as well as investments that mature at different time intervals. Incremental innovation offers more reliable results that often come to fruition in a much shorter timetable. Disruptive innovations are the swing for the fences that when you connect deliver more impactful results, but they often take longer and more swings to get there.

By balancing an innovation portfolio with different types of innovation, a healthcare company stands to maximize results while minimizing risks.

The Bottom Line Takeaways

Here are the key takeaways of the discussion.

  • Patient safety is the number one concern in healthcare when it comes to innovation.
  • Disruptive innovation is not the same as radical innovation, but the two are often confused. The risks to patient safety with disruptive innovation may not be as great as those that come with radical innovation.
  • Disruptive innovation and incremental innovation are best sought together to provide continuous results and opportunities to reach the maximum potential.

If you’re interested in digging into the discussion more, we’d encourage you to check out the complete free webinar recording now.

Modern Healthcare Innovation Leaders

How Top Health Systems Plan and Execute Innovation

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