If “every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets,” what should we make of the U.S. healthcare system? Compared to other wealthy nations, we spend twice as much on healthcare per person, yet carry the highest disease burden. Confronted by a problem this large and complex, healthcare innovators can’t just practice human-centered design on individual projects and hope for scale. We must also mirror the healthcare industry’s shift from volume to value-based care and focus on achieving preferable outcomes.

Focusing on outcomes means identifying the end results we want to achieve through our work – as well as potential negative consequences we should avoid. Say you have a goal of improving the care processes at your organization. The outcome of that goal is to improve people’s health through those care processes. By reframing our work through preferable outcomes, we can think more inclusively and systemically to unlock potential resources and innovation approaches.

Artefact interviewed healthcare leaders about the common challenges they face advancing innovation in their practice, and three ways applying an outcome-focused lens can help.

The challenge

Whether considering new care systems and programs or how AI can improve emotional health, disruptive innovation efforts inherently explore the unknown. This makes it difficult to predict their results and even harder to know if they will help an organization make money. In the face of questions about potential revenue, innovation teams can struggle to secure buy-in on projects or even justify their existence.

How outcome-focused design can help

Focusing on outcomes enables you to reframe and center conversations on value, rather than money. “It’s hard for organizations to say ‘no’ to families,” Kurt Myers, Innovation Specialist at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, told us. “When we’re solving for their needs and the needs of staff, it’s a much stronger case for things to be done.”

An outcome-focused approach also helps your team address the right problems. If an executive asks you to, “Figure out how we can use VR in our practice,” you can respond by asking, “What patient and staff challenges do you aim to resolve?” It creates space for your team to measure your impact not just through projected revenue, but other meaningful ways, like whether you reduced nurse burnout or improved the mental well-being of local young adults.

The challenge

It can be hard for organizations to reconcile the “First, do no harm” mentality of healthcare with the perceived risks and negative past experiences of innovation (like adopting electronic documentation). This impedes organizations’ abilities to practice innovation and try new solutions. A survey of 75 healthcare CEOs found that although 86 percent of boards regularly discuss innovation, organizational culture remains the greatest barrier.

How outcome-focused design can help

Organizations are more likely to embrace change if innovation efforts align with their broader strategy. Dr. Kayt Havens, Innovators Network Design Lead at the VA Center for Innovation, notes that, “The Secretary of Veterans Affairs puts out five major initiatives for the year. The Medical Director has their own. We encourage people to address them in projects because they’re more likely to get funded.” Explicitly stating the intended outcome of an innovation project, such as “increasing access to care,” helps stakeholders better relate it to their organization’s efforts.

Considering an organization’s strategy through the lens of potential outcomes also helps to reduce risk. For instance, say a provider wants to “increase access to care.” A potential solution would be to serve more rural communities by increasing its telehealth practice. A potential side effect of telehealth, however, is that it may alienate older populations who are less comfortable with technology. Thinking through the unintended consequences in advance allows the provider to devise plans (for example, provide more educational and personalized support) to prevent them.

The challenge

Collaboration in healthcare represents a paradox. No organization can improve population health on its own – the social determinants and systems of health are too broad and nuanced. That complexity and scale is a barrier to collaboration. Knowledge within organizations is often siloed, domain expertise is hard to transfer, and technology is changing at an increasing rate. Different standards across healthcare systems mean that outsider perspectives that lack context are ineffective.

How outcome-focused design can help

Because preferable outcomes, such as “access to health data,” originate from the shared values of individuals, organizations, and communities, they are a powerful tool for aligning and communicating with diverse, external stakeholders. Governments and policymakers in particular can use outcomes to anchor legislation that fosters collaboration. For instance, if a government sets interoperability standards, all stakeholders will have clear goals to work towards and the motivation (avoiding penalties) to work with others.

Outcomes can also help organizations attract appropriate partners with complementary skillsets. Take Cityblock Health, an organization that believes that “cities should be healthy places to live – for everyone.” The organization’s desired outcome implicates a wide array of stakeholders, ranging from policymakers to technologists, making it a highly effective call to action.

Let outcomes drive innovation

Innovation entails a degree of the unknown. Yet in the long run, the greater risk may lie in failing to evolve. It’s time for the healthcare industry to look beyond individual process optimization to the preferable – and avoidable – outcomes of our practice. Approaching healthcare with an outcome-focused mindset connects stakeholders through shared values and allows you to view innovation through the lens of your organizations’ broader strategies – helping breathe innovation into your practice with purpose and confidence.