Anticipating How Innovation Will Change Healthcare

An In-Depth Interview With Futurist Daniel Burrus on the Future of Healthcare, Supply Chain Innovation and Why Anticipating and Embracing Change Are Critical to Growth

June 1, 2016

FedEx had a recent opportunity to talk with business strategist, global futurist and New York Times bestselling author Daniel Burrus about how healthcare products companies should position themselves for success in the future.

FedEx: What’s the right approach to take when evaluating industry trends and how they will shape your future growth strategies?

Burrus: When you talk about trends, it’s important to separate what I call "hard trends" from "soft trends." Hard trends are based on future facts. They will happen. You can’t stop them. They are the disruptions that we can see that are coming our way. Soft trends are the "if’s" and "maybe’s." The things that might happen. Unlike hard trends that are based on future facts, soft trends are based on assumptions. That doesn’t mean they won’t happen. It just means they are not absolutely guaranteed to happen. By separating the things that we know will happen from the things that might happen, you have a whole new way of planning the future and thinking about trends. You also have a new way to manage risk. The technology-driven hard trends are already in place that can be used to transform every business process over the next five years. How we sell. How we market. How we communicate. How we collaborate. How we innovate. How we train. How we pay for things. All of that will be transformed over a five-year period. Now that’s the hard trend. The soft trend is will you transform your processes? I don’t know. That’s soft. That’s up to you.

FedEx: What does the future have in store for the healthcare industry specifically?

Burrus: I’ve talked to a lot of hospital CEOs and the majority say they feel the good old days are behind them. Would a CEO of a hospital who thinks the good old days of healthcare are behind us have different strategies and different actions compared to a CEO of a hospital that thinks the good old days are ahead of us? We’re in a period of incredible technology-driven innovation with real-time monitoring, remote disease management and diagnostics, personalized medicine, home delivery of drugs and many other changes. When we start to see all of the transformational changes that are taking place, we need to actively shape the future rather than helplessly sit back and watch it unfold. The opportunity to create positive change has never been more significant.

FedEx: What are the most important trends you see impacting healthcare?

Burrus: The U.S. federal government recently did a study to determine how they were going to pay for a growing number of people that would be obese by 2025 in the United States population. They did this with Alzheimer’s disease and diabetes too. Treating all of these future health problems would require amazing amounts of money. But all those numbers represent soft trends, meaning that we can change them. So what we face is that we can either figure out how we’re going to pay for a problem after we have it, or we can solve a predictable problem before we have it. I call that being anticipatory vs. being reactionary.

The Affordable Care Act was not about healthcare reform, but primarily focused on health-payment reform. How can we really reform healthcare? We look at how we can transform purchasing, logistics, and supply chain where we could literally flush billions of dollars out and be far more efficient. By working on that together we can co-create the future. All the players in the healthcare system need to use the tools that are transformational and exponential to allow us to do things that were impossible not long ago. Working together there is no problem we can’t solve.

FedEx: What are the most important technologies that you think are set to impact the future?

Burrus: I think it’s important to understand what I call exponential technologies. They are the underlying enablers. Think of examples like the cloud, virtualization, mobility, data visualization, analytics, and deep learning. Technologies like these are basically exponential platforms that you can use to drive innovation at very high speed. There are three digital accelerators that I’ve been tracking for 30 years: the exponential growth of computing power, digital bandwidth and digital storage. All three are on an exponential growth curve, which means instead of moving up in straight line they accelerate with time to the point that their growth is now an almost vertical path. That’s why things are changing so fast and will create predictable change even faster in the future.

FedEx: What are the most exciting examples of how big data could be used to improve the healthcare industry?

Burrus: First of all, what I want is good big data. Not bad big data. So the quality of the data is going to be extremely important. Secondly, it’s not the data. It’s how we use it. I don’t want just the data and information. What I need is actionable knowledge and wisdom in the form of guiding principles. What we’re increasingly doing is collecting the data and then doing high-speed analytics to covert that into something that we can take action on now. We’re making it more real time as we embed sensors in almost everything.

FedEx: Give me an example of a company successfully using innovation to address real-world problems.

Burrus: SenseAwareSM, a FedEx innovation, is a good example. When you get to a point where something can be done, you can either let others do it or you can decide to do it yourself. That's what FedEx did. By the way, you can expect that SenseAware will predictably get smaller over time. That is a major innovation that really can change logistics. In this case with SenseAware, it’s being able to use sensors to monitor humidity, light, movement, GPS location and things like that. Could you have sensors on a wall that detect bacteria or viruses so that you know if you’ve got a clean room or a dirty room? How could you use sensors to become more aware so that you can predict and prevent?

FedEx: What attitudes do large enterprises need to take to adopt a startup mind-set?

Burrus: Big companies today are more agile and moving faster, but they need to add a new level, and that is to be anticipatory. It’s more of a startup mind-set. If you want to come up with transformational innovation rather than just incremental innovation you need to be anticipatory. You need to be looking at the hard trends that you can see are shaping the future. Those are the certainties that will happen because they represent low risk. Strategy based on uncertainty has high risk. Strategy based on certainty has low risk and high reward. So in a world of uncertainty you have to ask, “What are you certain about?” The more you look at the hard trends that will shape the future the more you’ll see. Take a look.

FedEx: How should executives at healthcare products companies prepare themselves for implementing change in their organizations?

Burrus: I think the key is to actively shape your future rather than passively let it happen. Realize you can’t change the past but you can change the future based on the actions you take in the present. I’d like you to think in terms of five years from now rather than just one year from now, and then ask yourself if there is a tool that could help get you there faster, and you’ll probably find that tool. The more you look the more you see. Step forward and do something to create a little more enlightenment, communication and engagement in your organization. My biggest worry for everyone reading this right now is that you’re all really busy and you’re going to continue to be really busy. Now I know you’re going to be busy, but we’re at a unique point in human history. We’re at the base of a mountain of technology-driven innovation that represents amazing opportunities. Now whether you’re going to take advantage of those or not, that is up to you, so what I would like everyone to do is to spend a time unplugging from all of the crises and plugging in to that amazing opportunity. Otherwise you could busy yourself right out of business.

Comments have been edited for length.

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SenseAwareSM, a FedEx innovation