Jeffrey BauerHumor is a proven key to innovation, which is just what health care needs right now.

I find a somber mood almost everywhere as I travel the country these days to speak at meetings of hospital and medical group leaders. My message is always the same: There’s never been a more propitious time to fix the badly broken medical marketplace. Providers have an array of new tools for building a really good healthcare delivery system and rationalizing its economics.

Yet most executives and managers are preoccupied with the challenges of short-run survival. They are afraid to ponder long-run alternatives made possible by exciting advances in medical science and technology.

Health care’s strategic decision-makers need to take a break, put things in perspective, and consider unprecedented solutions for unprecedented problems. In fact, it’s time to lighten up and have a good laugh, because humor is a proven key to innovation.

New Approaches Are Needed

I have borrowed the title of this column from Monty Python because I am now going to do something I have never done before in a professional publication: tell a joke.

It’s Sunday morning. The sky turns black, lightning strikes all around, and a voice thunders from above for all to hear: “I’m tired of the world’s sins and have decided to clear the way for a fresh start. Exactly one week from now, I will unleash a flood to cover the earth. Get ready.” Then the clouds disappear and all is quiet.

From the pulpits come immediate responses. Father Flanagan at St. Mary’s improvises a homily of scriptural instructions about judgment day and announces daily masses to prepare communicants for the second coming. Pastor Patty over at the Lutheran church talks about using the limited time for evangelizing throughout the community. Reverend Jones at First Baptist starts to organize a continuous revival that will end with the Rapture the following Sunday.

And so on…except at World Community Rainbow and Good Vibrations Temple, one of those unaffiliated religious groups with no theological tradition or doctrinal instructions for the coming cataclysm. There, spiritual leader Randi pauses for a while and then declares to the congregation, “Our divine mission is clear. We have seven days to learn to breathe under water.”

My point, of course, is that survival in the coming new world of health care demands new skills and business practices. If we continue to work only with existing resources, the whole system will soon be untenable. Successful providers need to quickly form tight, locally driven partnerships with payers, purchasers, and patients to do things very differently.

This Is Do-able

By working together for common good and reasonable profits, multi-stakeholder partnerships will reinvent the medical marketplace—defining output as healthy individuals and communities, aligning prices with consumers’ limited ability to pay, and finding the least-expensive combination of labor and capital to produce goods and services of consistent and acceptable quality. And they will do all of this transparently for no more than 17 percent of the gross domestic product.

Surviving the perfect storm on health care’s horizon is that simple and that complicated; unlike breathing under water, it is perfectly do-able. No joke.

Jeffrey C. Bauer, PhD, is an independent speaker, consultant, health futurist, and medical economist, Chicago, and a member of HFMA’s First Illinois Chapter. 

Publication Date: Wednesday, February 12, 2014