In Healthcare, Reframing Ideas Can Yield Innovation

May 13th, 2013
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While the word “revolution” is used often during a period of rapid, intense innovation such as the one we are currently experiencing in healthcare, it can be helpful to step back to see what’s sparking the revolution. The answer may lie in the word, “frame.”
From a medical or scientific student’s traditional lessons in genetics (specifically, frame shift mutations), to changes in our perspective on a problem, frames make very significant impacts. Defined as a conceptual structure used in thinking, a frame helps us give an issue or problem borders, shape and structure.
This cognitive tool, while useful for our brains, also creates limitations. The linguist George Lakoff points out that every word in our language evokes a certain frame. And once evoked, other words reinforce that frame in our minds, until the image or concept is so strong that we can’t see through or around it.
Shifting Cognitive Frames to Foster Innovation

In her new book, InGenius, Dr. Tina Seelig, Executive Director for the Stanford Technology Ventures Program (STVP) at Stanford University’s School of Engineering, points to several ways to shift our cognitive frames to foster innovation. Frame shifting can come from trying to see an issue from several points of view. For healthcare, one could ask how a scientist looks at a new drug, versus how that drug may look to a family physician, surgeon, patient, family member, or child. Still another source of shifting frames (and revealing innovation) is the question, “why?” Seelig points to a continuous series of questions that start digging under our assumptions about an issue. In healthcare, for example, this can come into play in certain surgical procedures, where asking “why insert clamps manually?”, then, “why have clamps at all?” can start to lead to innovative treatments.
Getting back to the work of Lakoff, while his examples focus on politics, the pluses and minuses of frames and ways to use them are quite relevant to healthcare innovation. In digital health, some of these shifts are already happening; the smart phone can now be a diagnostic device, as well as a sharer of data. And many, if not most other areas of healthcare are seeing the benefits of taking tools from somebody else’s toolbox. For example: 

  • In the 1960’s, surgeon Lazar Greenfield worked with a petroleum engineer to design two new devices, intended for heart surgery. The first, the Greenfield Surfactometer was used to measure lung surface tension (which measured pulmonary surfactant, thought to contribute to pulmonary embolisms). This invention wasn’t used in the operating room for long, but it turned out to be a very good way to monitor water supplies for detergents.
  • Greenfield’s second invention, the Greenfield Filter, trapped blood clots in a way that reduced problems arising from damage to the inferior vena cava. Again, Greenfield worked with an engineer, who saw parallels between blood clots and sludge in a buried pipeline. The filter has since been used in more than 600,000 patients.
  • Today, the annual “Pumps and Pipes” meeting in Houston brings together cardiologists, cardiac surgeons, and petroleum engineers to address challenges in heart disease as well as the oil and gas industry (in both cases, we are talking about plumbing and drilling through cylinders, after all).

All three of these examples underscore the importance of frame shifting. Frames surround us, but so does innovation. In order for any healthcare revolution to flourish, we will need to make sure that our frames let us focus on new ideas and ways to solve health problems, rather than shutting down our vision.
At Popper and Company, the diversity of our team lets us shift frames to open innovation’s doors in ways that can even surprise us! We can help you create new strategies to help get your healthcare solution—and company—shifting in the right directions. To learn more, please subscribe to our newsletter, follow us on Twitter, or send me an email.

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About the Author:

My broad career spans across medicine, engineering and business development. At Popper and Company, I develop business strategies and provide guidance to accelerate new product development for medical device companies. Send me an email.