Innovation and Competition

Last year I published a piece called “Beyond Innovation and Competition,” questioning the dominance of those values. Economists celebrate innovation and competition as the main source of future growth. Innovation has become the central focus of Internet law and policy. While leading commentators sharply divide on the best way to promote innovation, they routinely elevate its importance. Business writers have celebrated search engines, social networks, and tech startups as model corporations, bringing creative destruction and “disruptive innovation” in their wake. Maximum innovation is the goal, and competition is billed as the best way of achieving it. Players in the vast and dynamic tech marketplace are supposed to constantly strive to innovate in order to attract consumers away from rivals.

In the piece, I explain how both competition and innovation can be as destructive as they are constructive. There are many social values (including privacy, transparency, predictability, and stability), and companies can compete for profits in ways that erode those values. In an era of inequality and hall-of-mirrors stock market valuations, innovations of marginal or negative impact on society at large can be vastly overvalued by a stampede of fickle investors.

The shortcomings of the innovation and competition story also play out in health information technology. Stimulus legislation in 2009 provided many carrots and sticks for doctors to digitize their recordkeeping systems, ranging from bonuses now to reimbursement haircuts later this decade if they fail to implement the technology. Congress structured the incentives to encourage a competitive and innovative marketplace in health information technology. But many doctors are shying away from implementation, in part because they fear that the fast and loose ethics of the market can’t mesh with a medical culture of constant commitment to quality care.

Susan Jaffe’s article for the Center for Public Integrity examines doctors’ fears about adopting any given software suite. According to Jaffe, “570 different electronic health systems certified by private organizations for non-hospital settings may be used to qualify for the” stimulus funds. The long-term consequences of the choice make the jam-shopping examples in Barry Schwartz’s book The Paradox of Choice seem quaint:

The systems can vary in appearance, content, organization and special features. Some can be customized by users in different ways, at no cost or some cost, or not at all. Some are compatible with other systems now, eventually or, some critics say, maybe never. . . . The costs of the systems remain daunting, despite the bonuses, particularly in areas that have been hit hard by an ailing economy.

The pricetag varies widely depending on the type and size of the medical practice, whether new computers are purchased and the extent of customization, among other things. Software alone can cost from $2,000 to $10,000 per doctor. All told, the cost jumps to about roughly $20,000 per doctor, according to a regional extension center consultant who advises physicians in northeast Ohio. On top of that, manufacturers charge hefty annual fees for technical support and periodic upgrades that together can amount to about 35 percent of the upfront costs. The systems are priced in a way that does not make comparison shopping “easy or necessarily valid,” said Dottie Howe, a spokeswoman for the Ohio regional extension center. There is no basic price because each company offers different components, features, options, and level of technical support. . . .

Most manufacturers will also charge the doctors to move the information in their current system to the new one. There could be extra [ongoing, monthly] charges to connect to other systems too.

Doctors have also been burned by sharp operators that emphasize slick salesmanship over solid service:

[T]he Southwest Family Physicians group is worried . . . They bought an electronic health record system five years ago that is now nearly obsolete. The manufacturer was taken over by another company that provides minimal technical support . . . “The salesman said ‘you’re buying a Cadillac, this is going to be the greatest thing,’ ” [one doctor] recalled. But that system can’t display an X-Ray image or send a prescription electronically to a pharmacy. “We’ve got the Model T Ford,” he said.

le secret, l’illustration Européenne 1871 no.22 page 173 

It does appear that regional extension centers are doing some work to keep pricing reasonable. Jaffe’s article focuses on Ohio, where five “preferred vendors” “agreed to charge prices ‘as good as or better than’ prices offered to other regional extension centers, to provide onsite assistance when a practice turns on its electronic health record system for the first time, offer technical support for at least six years, and limit annual cost increases for continuing technical support, among other things.” But consider the bizarrely proprietary nature of pricing data:

Whether the five preferred vendors offer a better deal than their non-preferred competitors is not known because the state regional extension center doesn’t have pricing information from non-preferred vendors, said Howe, the spokeswoman for the state’s regional extension center. Pricing from the preferred vendors are confidential, she said. And despite their preferred status, the five companies do not guarantee that eligible health care providers who purchase their systems will receive the government’s bonus payments.

I discussed the troubling degree of secrecy in health care before, and I’m very sad to see it persist here. The doctors in Jaffe’s story are making reasonable demands: to be able to understand the nature of the commitment they are making, to avoid big financial losses, and not to be burned by fly-by-night operators attracted only by the government subsidy money. They want to assure that the basic health care values of access, cost-control, and quality are reflected in the software they use.

We are seeing the opening stages of a battle between a medical sector committed to maintaining its own autonomy and traditions, and a tech sector that wants to commoditize health data in as standardized a form as futures markets homogenized corn grades, or credit scores tranched residential mortgage backed securities. Commenting on the demise of Google Health, an informatics expert said that “Google is unwilling, for perfectly good business reasons, to engage in block-by-block market solutions to health-care institutions one by one, and expecting patients to actually do data entry is not a scalable and workable solution.” To be sure, the company can’t expect to make the same profit margins in the health sector as it does in the online ad business. But the “instant millions” ethos of Silicon Valley doesn’t fit well with a sector where we are in principle committed to serving everyone, regardless of ability to pay.

Economist John Van Reenen has observed that the US has a particularly innovative economy in part because our markets are so good at crushing badly run firms. It’s probably good that garden equipment suppliers, toothpaste makers, and pie bakers know they can be out of business in a month or two if they’re “off their game” for a short time. But if I just entrusted three years of medical records to a vendor who suddenly went out of business, I’d take little comfort in the idea that a marginally better competitor had knocked it out of the market. The transition to a new vendor can be slow and costly—doctors in Jaffe’s story speak of seeing 1/3 to 1/2 less patients over weeks or months as they learn a new system.

At a Yale SOM Health Care conference in 2009, the Chief Medical Officer of a major player in the field once remarked to me that choosing an HIT vendor is “like a marriage—you don’t end the relationship lightly.” I first thought that remark was self-serving. But the more one examines the HIT field, the more important it appears to get standard recordkeeping, support capabilities, and interoperability right at the outset, rather than leaving doctors to negotiate the wreckage of several generations of battling systems. Think about how chaotic online music sales seemed before iTunes. Perhaps Apple (whose iPads are already beloved by many docs) is going to bring a swift and highly profitable order to this field, too. I hope the ONC and other decisionmakers will well-regulate whatever behemoth eventually emerges, vindicating the public values that competition and innovation are unlikely to promote.

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  1. The licensing fees are exhorbitant to direct the federal incentive money through the doc to the vendor.

    The system i buy should be better than the Iphone. I have not seen it yet.

    Keep innovating. The boat anchor has already been invented.

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