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Ask the Experts: Is Innovating Within an Academic Medical Center Really Possible?

At MedTech Boston, we spend a lot of time thinking – and writing – about the best places for healthcare innovation to occur. Is it within the private sector? Maybe inside an incubator that’s funded by a larger organization? Or perhaps healthcare innovation is best catalyzed within an academic medical center.

Innovators tend to disagree widely on this topic; some believe that academic medical centers, full of bureaucracy and clunky, slow-moving processes, can stunt innovation to the point of extinction. Others, however, believe that you need the power of a big institution to drive the kinds of change that will pull the healthcare industry into the 21st century.

This week, we asked some of our top experts – all of whom have experience with innovation, both inside an academic medical center and outside of one – to weigh in on the topic.

Neel Shah


Neel Shah, MD, MPP, is the founder and executive director of Costs of Care, an organization dedicated to reforming healthcare costs. He is also an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, associate faculty at the Ariadne Labs for Health Systems Innovation and an ObGyn at BIDMC.

Is innovation even possible inside an academic medical center, or should innovators move into the private sector?

At first glance, the private sector can seem like the best place to innovate. There is more access to capital, more latitude for creative approaches, more polish. The thing is, though, academic medical centers have two critical ingredients for solving the most challenging problems that the private sector lacks: inquisitive clinical trainees who are actively questioning the status quo, and deep experience with unusual, medically complex patients.

The truth is you need both academic and private solutions – but if you made me pick, the academic medical center trumps.

Why is innovating in academic medicine so difficult?

Academic medical centers have multiple missions: patient care, medical education, research. And in theory, these missions are synergistic. But in practice, they are sometimes in conflict. As a result, long-term investments in innovation are likely to get shelved in favor of shorter-term pay-offs.

Why, then, do we still need to be pushing for innovation in academia?

The private sector has a financial interest in keeping solutions proprietary. Academic medical centers have an interest in shouting their solutions from the rooftops, then indexing them on PubMed and making them open source. Healthcare doesn’t need more private solutions. It requires more solutions for everyone.

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Jenni Whalen

Jenni Whalen

    Jenni Whalen is the Executive Assistant of Editorial at Upworthy. She was previously MedTech Boston's Managing Editor and has an MS in Journalism from Boston University, as well as a BA in Psychology from Bucknell University. Whalen has written for Greatist, Boston magazine, AZ Central Healthy Living and the New England Journal of Medicine, among other places. She has also worked as a conference planner, ghost writer, researcher and content developer.

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