An Iron Throne and Infinity Stones – What Pop Culture Can Teach Healthcare
From a purely business perspective, there is perhaps no greater aspiration than to “go viral” and be adopted into popular culture. When it happens, things move beyond their tactile descriptions to connect us and keep us coming back for more.
“Avengers: Endgame”, the long awaited apex of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s (MCU) super hero buddy saga, recently became the most popular (based on total global sales) film in box office history. It is the culmination of an interconnected twenty-two movie series that launched in 2008, and has grossed more than $8.2 billion to date. The MCU has become one of the most popular and longest running movie franchises in the world, solidifying its place in popular culture.
Fans around the globe flocked to their televisions for the final season of HBO’s “Game of Thrones”. Over its eight seasons, the show saw its audience grow to an average of 17.4 million viewers per episode; an unprecedented accomplishment in todays fractured media marketplace. The show earned 128 Emmy nominations and won 47 awards, making it one of the most popular television series in history.
In 2011, the same relative period that MCU and Game of Thrones began, the U.S. healthcare system launched an effort to transform itself, beginning with massive investments in Health IT infrastructure. Both public and private stakeholders poured billions of dollars into reimagining the value proposition for healthcare.
These investments have resulted in some impressive accomplishments. First, transforming a largely paper-based industry into one that is now predominantly digital. Second, the bilateral sharing of data, facilitated by regional health information exchange organizations. This has made patient health information more readily accessible, thus enhancing the delivery of care.
Nevertheless, challenges persist in realizing the vision of a fully transformed healthcare ecosystem. For myriad reasons, it has not “gone viral”. It is ironic when you consider the potential benefits of a connected healthcare system. The overall quality of life benefits are far greater than the temporal payoff provided by a couple of hours in the movie theater or on the couch.
The issues limiting greater progress in healthcare innovation are not fundamentally technological. Despite the flurry of proposed rules and policies from CMS and the ONC, no amount of top-down government regulation will help us get there. The obstacles are cultural and psychological. To assure that we achieve all that a transformed healthcare ecosystem represents requires the full and enthusiastic support of the population at large.
Not coincidentally, the attributes that make something “go viral” are also largely cultural and psychological. It is clear that Marvel and HBO have perfected a winning recipe in presenting content to their target audience. So, what exactly are the ingredients they use? How can they be applied to healthcare to drive transformation?
As the saying goes, “There is nothing new under the sun”. Every epic story borrows from those that have come before. The Avengers borrow much of their history and narrative from Greek, Roman, and Scandinavian legend and mythology. George R.R. Martin, author of the source material for Game of Thrones, based his saga on the War of the Roses from medieval English history. These narratives are in the fabric of our common experience.
There is perhaps nothing more common in human experience than our personal health and its direct connection to quality of life. While each individual’s “health legend” may vary based on a numerous factors, the shared value that we place on our health is inherent to each of us, and connects us to each other.
We may not have superhuman abilities or fear attack from the frozen undead, but the heroes in both stories are unmistakably human. They struggle with personal issues and insecurities, just like us. Because of this, we can relate to them and their experiences.
Another irony in efforts to drive healthcare innovation, particularly as it relates to technology, is the under representation of patient perspectives in the development of those tools. It is very difficult to create real solutions for people without a first-person understanding of their unique experience. I am encouraged that many in the industry have heard this concern and are applying focused attention to correcting it.
I love the moment in the first Avengers movie, when the heroes, surrounded and outnumbered, set aside their personal agendas and egos, and tacitly acknowledge Captain America’s leadership as he rallies them to victory over the invading alien hordes. We naturally gravitate to leaders who have purity of heart and clarity of purpose in the midst of chaos.
We are fortunate to have many such leaders working toward the goal of a more accessible, affordable, equitable, and prevention-focused healthcare system. Many formally lead agencies and companies, many others are without official titles and simply lead from experience and example. These individuals need acknowledgement and can be beacons for others to follow.
A common aspect of human nature that permeates literature and film is our desire to be part of something bigger and larger than we are individually. The Avengers willingly sacrifice themselves for the good of humanity. The power hungry leaders of the Seven Kingdoms in the Game of Thrones temporarily set aside their ambitions to fight the White Walkers.
In healthcare, this unifying quest already exists. We know what it is, but the why is sometimes lost. Those working in the system spend so much time speaking “healthcare” that we forget that for most people it is a foreign language. We need to explain the quest for a better healthcare system in a way that the average person can easily understand and internalize. When the quest resonates personally, the public will rush to take up the call.
How do you know you are heading in the right direction if you do not know what the objective is, or what it looks like when you get there? The Endgame for the Avengers was to recapture the Infinity Stones, defeat Thanos, and restore the universe. Easier said than done. In Game of Thrones, the ultimate end is the reunification of Westeros under a single king, even if there is no place for him to sit anymore.
Part of the challenge in making progress toward a final destination in the transformation of healthcare, is that there are so many descriptions of what it should look like. This may be the biggest obstacle to breaking into the pop-cultural consciousness. It is inherent upon us working in healthcare to create a single unified vision of the goal that is relatable to everyone.
Driving Healthcare Transformation
In the journey to transform healthcare, winter isn’t coming, it’s already here. There is a persistent disconnect between the insiders focused on a specific piece of the puzzle, and the general population, who are largely unaware of the bigger picture. Like saving the universe from destruction, reimagining healthcare is a team sport.
We need to go viral. The examples above are just a few of the characteristics that can help attract the attention of popular culture. Let’s use them and others to reframe the challenge in terms that capture our collective imaginations, inspire the public to join the cause, and use that momentum to propel us forward.
This article was originally published on Great Lakes Health Connect and is republished here with permission.