Robert Graboyes on What the Internet Can Teach Us about Health Care Innovation

by on November 10, 2014 · 0 comments

Robert-GraboyesI want to bring to everyone’s attention an important new white paper by Dr. Robert Graboyes, a colleague of mine at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University who specializes in the economics of health care. His new 67-page study, Fortress and Frontier in American Health Care, seeks to move away from the tired old dichotomies that drive health care policy discussions: Left versus Right, Democrat versus Republican, federal versus state, and public versus private, and so on. Instead, Graboyes seeks to reframe the debate over the future of health care innovation in terms of “Fortress versus Frontier” and to highlight what lessons we can learn from the Internet and the Information Revolution when considering health care policy.

What does Graboyes mean by “Fortress and Frontier”? Here’s how he explains this conflict of visions:

The Fortress is an institutional environment that aims to obviate risk and protect established producers (insiders) against competition from newcomers (outsiders). The Frontier, in contrast, tolerates risk and allows outsiders to compete against established insiders. . . .  The Fortress-Frontier divide does not correspond neatly with the more familiar partisan or ideological divides. Framing health care policy issues in this way opens the door for a more productive national health care discussion and for unconventional policy alliances. (p. 4)

He elaborates in more detail later in the paper:

the Frontier encourages creative destruction and disruptive innovation. Undreamed-of products arise and old, revered ones vanish. New production processes sweep away old ones. This is a place where unknown innovators in garages destroy titans of industry. The Frontier celebrates and rewards risk, and there is a brutal egalitarianism to the creative process.

In contrast, the Fortress discourages creative destruction and disruptive innovation. Insiders are protected from competition by government or by private organizations (such as insurers and medical societies) acting in quasigovernmental fashion. In the Fortress, insiders preserve the existing order. Innovation comes from well-established, credentialed insiders who, it is presumed, have the wisdom and motives and competence to identify opportunities for innovation.

In framing the debate in this fashion, Graboyes hopes that we will start paying more attention to the supply side of health care policy debates:

The debate over coverage (and over related issues concerning how health care providers are paid) has focused attention almost exclusively on the demand side of health care markets—who pays how much to whom for which currently offered services. The debate underplays questions of supply—how innovation can alter the very nature of the health care delivery system. (p. 3-4)

This is where Graboyes brings the Internet and information technology into the story to illustrate a powerful point: We could unlock many important life-enriching and potentially life-saving innovations by embracing the same vision we applied to the Internet and IT sectors. Graboyes is kind enough to cite my work on permissionless innovation and the importance of not letting public policy be dictated by excessive fear of worst-case scenarios regarding new technological innovations. As I noted in my book on the topic, “living in constant fear of worst-case scenarios—and premising public policy upon them—means that best-case scenarios will never come about. When public policy is shaped by precautionary principle reasoning, it poses a serious threat to technological progress, economic entrepreneurialism, social adaptation, and long-run prosperity.”

Had fear of potential worst-case outcomes driven policy for the Net, we might have never seen many of the life-enriching innovations that we enjoy today, as Graboyes explains eloquently in this passage:

Knowing what we know today, it would not be hard to persuade a cautious observer in 1989 to radically slow the pace of IT innovation. IT arguably poses personal risks as grave as those that health care poses. Cell phones have been essential components of improvised explosive devices in war zones. The 9/11 atrocities would have been difficult or impossible to carry out without cell phones. Thieves have used the Internet to steal. Stalkers have used the Internet to terrify their prey. Child predators find their victims on the web. People have been murdered by strangers they met in chatrooms. IT has allowed individuals and governments to violate others’ privacy in countless ways. Drug dealers and terrorist networks organize their efforts via cell phone and Internet. The Internet has greatly reduced the cost of destroying another’s reputation, and news accounts tell of suicides following cyberbullying.

Our laws demand terribly high standards of safety and efficacy for drugs. We require no such standards for computers, cell phones, and software, but given the nefarious uses to which they are sometimes put, decades ago one could easily have argued for doing so. Had we done so, we would now be living in a much poorer, less interesting world—and perhaps one with even greater risks to life and limb than we have now. No online predators or improvised explosive devices, but also no OnStar to save you after an automobile crash or smartphone to alert police to your life-threatening situation and geographic location. (p. 41)

In other words–and this is another lesson I stress at length in my work–precautionary policies create profound trade-offs that are not always well understood upon enactment of new laws or regulations. As I noted in my book, “When commercial uses of an important resource or technology are arbitrarily prohibited or curtailed, the opportunity costs of such exclusion may not always be immediately evident. Nonetheless, those ‘unseen’ effects are very real and have profound consequences for individuals, the economy, and society.”

What Graboyes does so well in his new paper is prove that these trade-offs are already at work in the American health care system and that we had better get serious about acknowledging them before real damage is done. And what makes Fortress and Frontier such an enjoyable read is that Graboyes is a gifted story-teller who explains in clear terms how expanded health care innovation opportunities could improve the lives of real people. It’s not just abstract, textbook talk. We hear stories of real-world innovators and the patients who need their inventions. For example, Graboyes tells of “an unheralded doctor who pioneered stem-cell therapy in a small-town hospital, a carpenter and puppet-maker who invented functional prosthetic hands costing one-thousandth the price of professionally made devices (aided by an evolutionary biologist who started a worldwide consortium of amateur prosthetists), and college students who devised a low-cost treatment for clubfoot.” (p. 4) And much, much more.

“The most important thing to understand about disruptive innovation is that it often comes (perhaps usually comes) from strange and unexpected places,” Graboyes notes. (p. 20) “[A] shift from Fortress to Frontier would benefit the health and finances of Americans,” he argues, and “the task begins by easing limits on the supply of health care services, thereby clearing the way for innovators to take health care in directions we cannot yet imagine.” (p. 39)

Importantly, Graboyes also offers another reason why America should embrace the “frontier” spirit: Our global competitive advantage in this space is at risk if we don’t:

Moving health care from the Fortress to the Frontier may be more a matter of necessity than of choice. We are entering a period of rapid technological advances that will radically alter health care. Many of these advances require only modest capital and labor inputs that governments cannot easily control or prohibit. If US law obstructs these technologies here, it will be feasible for Americans to obtain them by Internet, by mail, or by travel. (p. 41-2)

He highlights several areas in which this debate will play out going forward including (and notice the intersection with the modern digital technologies and tech policy debates we often discuss here): genomic knowledge and personalized medicine, 3-D printing, artificial intelligence, information sharing via social media, wearable technology, and telemedicine.

To make sure that America can capitalize on the same innovative spirit that gave us the Information Revolution, Graboyes concludes his study with a laundry list of needed policy reforms. These include:

  • reform of FDA drug & device approval process to expedite reviews.
  • ensure that Americans have a “right to know” about themselves and their health (i.e., that individuals have a right to possess their own genetic information and to receive information about how to interpret the results.)
  • abolish state certificate-of-need laws, which unnecessarily “require that hospital developers obtain government permission before building a new facility, or expanding an existing one, or even adding a specific piece of medical equipment.”
  • reform state-based licensing laws, which “put barriers in the way of doctors moving from other states” and create physician shortages. Also need to reform state laws to allow nurse practitioners, optometrists, and others to practice independently of physicians.
  • reform tort law by capping noneconomic damages, instituting a “loser pays” rule to discourage frivolous lawsuits, establishing safe harbors for vaccine developers, and more.
  • revising tax laws to make sure medical devices are not hit with discriminatory tax burdens that discourage innovation, and then also revising other taxes that skew incentives in the health insurance marketplace.

Graboyes itemizes dozens of other potential reforms to give policymakers a smorgasbord of options from which to choose. It is unlikely that all the reforms he lists will be adopted, but even if policymakers would just pick a few of those proposed action items, it could provide a real boost to medical innovation in the short term. Importantly, most of these proposed reforms could be implemented without stirring up contentious debate over the future of the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

Needless to say, I highly recommend Fortress and Frontier and I very much hope that the vision that Graboyes articulates in it comes to influence public thinking and future policymaking in the health care arena. In a follow-up post, I will also discuss how Fortress versus Frontier provides us with another “innovation paradigm” that can help us frame future innovation policy debates in many other contexts.

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