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

Erika Pabo


Erika Pabo, MD, is a clinician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, where she’s the Assistant Director of Primary Care. She is also Twine Health‘s Chief Medical Officer.

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

There are real and meaningful opportunities to innovate within academic medical centers, but it is not without its challenges. Historically, some of the most exciting advances in modern medicine have their roots in academic research or care delivery, and so in a way, research that advances the field is built into the very fiber of these institutions’ beings. They have an exciting combination of some of the smartest thought leaders in modern medicine alongside limitless testbeds of hospitals and clinics within which they can test their ideas and figure out what works and doesn’t work, and so one shouldn’t discount the potential of innovating from within a place like that.

Why is innovating in academic medicine so difficult?

In the fields of health IT and care delivery innovation, regardless of whether one is doing it within an academic medical center or in the private sector, innovation is more difficult than other types of research because there are so many interconnected pieces and players. Designing new care delivery models without new IT tools to help them work efficiently won’t work. And designing new IT tools without thought to who will use them and how they will integrate into workflow won’t work either. One simply can’t do this type of research in isolation in a siloed laboratory the same way that someone who is studying protein binding structure or working to make targeted therapeutics would be able to. Academia has excelled in doing fantastic laboratory research and has excelled in conducting large scale clinical trials to test which therapeutics are effective, but this type of work is more challenging.

What gives me hope, however, despite the challenges, are places like Ariadne Labs at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and the Harvard School of Public Health, or the new Dell Medical School at the University of Texas at Austin. Ariadne Labs, where I serve as associate faculty, was designed from the ground up to support this type of health systems innovation (in academia) and to support transforming our health care system, not just in the United States but across the world. The Dell Medical School is being built from the ground up to redefine both education and care delivery, supporting a totally new model of care delivery and innovation.

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

Knowing if new technologies work or don’t work, and figuring out what we can do to make them better, is a critical component of advancing health and healthcare. Health care entrepreneurs have a tremendous opportunity to improve the health of populations and to decrease the total cost of care but they can’t do so effectively with blinders on. They need to do so armed with intimate knowledge of what effect their solutions are having and aren’t having on the problems they are trying to solve, and they need to be working every day to improve on that. Academic health centers are perfectly positioned to gather this kind of data on their own or through partnership with entrepreneurs.

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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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