Bridging Innovation into Health Care Leadership

By R. Edward Howell

As I read Regina Herzlinger and colleagues’ thoughtful HBR blog post, a call to “alter how we educate future health care leaders,” I am reminded of the classic Michael J. Fox movie, Back to the Future. The writers’ assertion that “business leaders can and should partner with educators” strikes me as a return to the original training construct for health and hospital leaders, in which students in masters’ programs in health administration spent one year in the classroom and a second year under the direction of an experienced health care practitioners. Their urging of academic and business leaders to work together “to integrate the classroom into the real world” is not only timely; it is likely to be well received by the practitioners in the field.

Clearly, continued innovation is needed in health care, not just in teaching hospitals. Medical innovation has been an integral element of health care in the United States for over a century, but it is sometimes confused with entrepreneurship. Judging by the recent surge just in IT startups focused on providing analytics to inform population health, entrepreneurship in health care seems to be alive and well. But as the nation undertakes the reform of health care, what is needed is innovation in practice! We need new ways of providing health care and preventive services to the U.S. population — 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

It is critically important that innovation in health care delivery be aligned with trends in medical practice, which frankly are going in a different direction with the emphasis on “standardization of practice.” Innovation and standardization are not inherently at odds, but an awareness of the characteristics and impact of standardization on medical practice will greatly enhance the effectiveness of innovation. In fact, a focus on innovation by health administrators may well result in a closer bond between clinicians and administrators.

The establishment of the Global Educators Network for Health Care Innovation Education (GENIE) that Herzlinger and colleagues outline in their post represents a proactive movement that holds the potential not only to encourage entrepreneurship in the training of health administrators but to bring experienced practitioners and academics together to transform the way future health care leaders are trained. Currently the training of health care administrators focuses on creating a core set of competencies among all graduates of accredited  programs in health administration. Because none of the core competencies address innovation, as a first step, GENIE should engage the Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Management Education (CAHME) to forge innovation competencies that can be incorporated into the accreditation standards for graduate programs that train future health care executives. Unquestionably, tomorrow’s (and today’s) health care leaders must be well versed in the academic underpinnings of organization theory, change management, industrial engineering, and finance. But they must also have a solid footing in the practice of health care management if they are to provide the level of effective leadership this nation deserves. While Herzlinger’s call to “alter how we educate future health care leaders” focused on the enhancement of innovation, it also could pave the way to meld academic rigor with effective practice in the training of tomorrow’s health care leaders.  I for one would encourage undertaking such a journey!

Ed_Howell_Crop_KR. Edward Howell is Professor of Public Health Sciences and Professor and founder of the Bachelors program in Health Management at the University of Virginia. He previously served as the Vice President and Chief Executive Officer of the University of Virginia Medical Center from 2002 to 2014. He can be reached at