4 ways to advance tech innovation in health care


The biggest tech companies are increasingly taking on the challenge of health care innovation. But health care companies have a distinct advantage that Big Tech can’t match.

The health care system is highly complex. And leaders in health care have decades of experience working with patients, doctors, hospitals, pharmacies, labs, insurance companies, government agencies, IT providers and others, all dancing in an intricate choreography. This experience helps health care leaders understand the goals and needs of the diverse partners — and how to meet those partners’ needs.

But health care companies (including payers, providers and others) can’t count on this barrier to entry to protect their lead. They must transform like tech companies and foster a culture of continuous innovation. That’s because patients and customers are served best by a combination of institutional knowledge and thoughtful application of emerging technologies.

Here are four ways health care companies can transform themselves to push tech innovation forward.

1. Encourage self-disruption.

Top health care leaders must be willing to disrupt their existing businesses when better outcomes and higher efficiencies can be gained. Growth can include a level of discomfort, and leaders may need to make bets on new approaches. They may need to push boundaries for incremental improvements, even while encouraging and funding “moon shots” that can reimagine and redesign service delivery.

For example, at Optum we are using machine learning to help identify the potential for opioid abuse or readmissions at skilled-nursing facilities. We are using blockchain technology to improve sharing of provider data between health care payers, with the goal of reducing costs for everyone. And we’re using internet of-things (IoT) technologies to transform patient monitoring into frequent, location-agnostic experiences, improving outcomes and unlocking insights. This is just the beginning, as many new tools and techniques will be invented and deployed in coming years.

2. Replace IT-service mindsets.

Historically, some health care companies have focused more on improving their processes than on advancing technological boundaries. A process focus brings structure, order and discipline to large businesses, but it can also inhibit breakthrough thinking.

Health care companies can use their IT talent to maintain their own legacy production areas. Or they can partner to outsource some of their IT needs to industry experts that have economies of scale and proven methods. Either way, health care companies must also find and support smart, creative people with deep technical expertise. They need people who are driven by relentless curiosity, continuous discovery and calculated risk taking. IT employees must fundamentally reimagine their roles by exploring the adjacent possibilities enabled by emerging technologies.

Health care companies need to invest in staff training, ask hard questions about what they deliver and how they deliver it, and set expectations for continual skills growth.

3. Celebrate successful innovators (and learn through failure).

Reinforcing new cultural norms means celebrating successes. It also means honest examination and candid feedback about setbacks and failed projects. Leaders must create an environment that encourages probing questions, inquisitive thinking, continuous problem solving and, sometimes, outlandish ideas.

Internal news stories, lunch-and-learns, lightning talks, forums and communities all lead us toward an intellectually open environment. As Nobel Prize winner Linus Pauling observed, “The best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas.” Long-term success requires appreciation of those who’ve succeeded, and continual employee engagement to reengineer the organization and its processes.

At Optum, we test and scrap a lot of ideas that never make it to market. Some don’t even make it to the prototype stage. A small handful go on to have a big impact on health care. That’s simply part of the innovation process.

4. Transform institutions, focus on value.

Health care companies can’t just work on interesting proof-of-concepts. They need to bridge the gap between prototypes and delivering real value to improve the health care system. This means making hard decisions about investments and returns, not just to the company but to society.

What kinds of institutional changes are we talking about? They include:

  • Commitments to reusable APIs
  • Site reliability engineering
  • Automation
  • DevOps
  • Continuous delivery
  • Contributing to open-source efforts
  • Building ecosystems and communities with open standards where appropriate

It also includes strategic patent protection in key areas, to protect investments and establish freedom to operate.


All health care companies must use technological advances to create meaningful health care innovations. At Optum, we take a page from our friends and colleagues in Big Tech, and combine their approaches with our deep health care expertise to solve problems like no one else can.

Changes are coming to virtually every industry, not just health care. Tech companies remind everyone of the need to transform. For continued success, health care companies must push themselves to innovate and grow as individuals and organizations. And they must use emerging technologies to deliver new value, capabilities and solutions to make health care better for everyone.

Visit optum.com/technology to learn more about how Optum is advancing technology for human potential.

About the author:

wf1315154-rick-hamilton-540x360Rick Hamilton
Senior Distinguished Engineer

With over 930 issued U.S. patents, Rick is currently the 19th most prolific inventor in the world. His background and expertise are in cloud, the Internet of Things (IoT), data analytics and artificial intelligence (AI). You can read Rick Hamilton’s full profile on our People page.

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