Fostering Innovation: What can Health Care Teach Education?

Disruptive innovations have transformed health care in recent years and brought about the greatest transformation of the system in a generation.  Education’s turn could be next.

The most obvious change is the Affordable Care Act, which brings coverage to millions of previously uninsured Americans.  However, other innovations that escape widespread notice are just as important.  One is the rising status of nurse practitioners. These clinicians provide high-quality primary and preventive care in retail-based settings like convenient care clinics and community settings like nurse-managed health centers.

The spread of this new model of care was not without its challenges when it was first introduced in 1968.  The realization of its promise took almost 40 years and required more than 300 state and national law changes. Challenging the status quo is never easy, but in this case it was worth the effort.  Close to 200,000 nurse practitioners function today as mainstream primary care providers not just in retail and nurse-led clinics but in many other health care settings, as well.

The success of nurse practitioners holds lesions for the struggles to advance our educational system.  Traditional models of learning must be challenged to ensure that the United States remains competitive.

The birth of the nurse practitioner profession and its transformation into an established component of primary care represents the kind of change that can transform our failing education system. The new profession challenged incumbents, most notably organized medicine, which did not want to give up control.  Education needs to follow a similar course.

How did change come about in health care?  It took more than 20 years of state battles to change the over 300 laws. However, education disruptors don’t have to spend that much time fighting political battles and letting three more generations of students miss out on educational innovation in the process.

Educational innovators should be prepared for opposition based on four main arguments: quality will decline, the system will become disjointed, leaders will be hobbled by conflicts of interest, and the system will lack regulation and standardization. Here are the responses that succeeded health care:

  • Showing that quality will be enhanced by demonstrating results based on evidence.
  • Showing that the system will be well coordinated by providing support services that are better than those available today.
  • Showing that innovative organizations will operate as honest businesses that are transparent about conflicts of interest.
  • Pointing out that a new system will be regulated as stringently as the old one.

Education innovators will need to be proactive about their new models and introduce them to legislators before they arouse political opposition.  Success will depend on building strong alliances with like-minded groups both inside and outside of education and on building relationships with policymakers.  When the political process does not work, they should remember that the legal system is also a policy forum and one that can often transcend politics.

Success requires working together across turfs, types of organizations and ideologies.  It involves figuring out how everyone can win a little.

Harnessing technological disruptions can provide a springboard for innovation across all education systems.  Software that creates virtual educational environments and universal student access to information are challenging every type of school (co-op, home school, district, charter, private) to rethink how students learn and how curricula are delivered. Blended learning (online and face to face) in all types of schools has created an opportunity for every student to have an individualized learning path based upon his or her academic level.

In health care, friends and foes came together to bring about change.  The accomplishments went beyond the rise of new professions to include a major reform of the entire system, the Affordable Care Act, which brought about wins for all (acknowledging that some won more than others). What succeeded in health care could ultimately bring new innovative models to education and improve outcomes in learning just as it vastly expanded access to care.