• January 2010

What the iPhone can teach us about improving health care

By Robin Strongin
creator, Disruptive Women in Health Care
president, Amplify Public Affairs

The day before my daughter Elise’s 15th birthday, the new iPhone went on sale. My birthday was four days later, so Elise figured out we should buy each other an iPhone to mark our big days. She planned (and saved) for months. She spent weeks talking to friends, researching apps on line, planning for such accessories as protective covers, and educating herself on how to maximize her minutes.

When the big day came, we made our way to the Apple store and stood shoulder to shoulder with hundreds of others waiting on a very long line. Two and a half hours later we were invited, actually escorted, in to the store by an extremely friendly, knowledgeable young man who stayed with us during the entire purchase transaction.

He answered tons of questions (mine, not Elise’s…she already knew everything), politely reviewed various functions with me (Elise was extremely patient during this process), and made great suggestions about which plan was best for us.

While we were waiting on line, I looked around at the people waiting with us–we were an extremely diverse group–and wondered:

  • Why in the world were we all willing to wait hours to buy a telephone, a very expensive telephone?
  • How did the folks at Apple get us to this point?
  • What lessons could we take away and apply to health care?

Here’s what I came up with:

The iPhone is not your mother’s rotary dial wall phone. The engineers and creative types figured out how to make a very uncool, but necessary, object not only aesthetically pleasing, edgy, and fun, but useful, convenient, and easy to use. They stimulated demand.

Now if the Apple folks could only do for colonoscopies what they did for telephones. I am only half joking. How do we make taking care of ourselves and our loved ones cool? How do we make boring, sometimes not so pleasant preventive measures cool and edgy?

Too often, hospitals are scary places. Although some newer facilities have made efforts to look more appealing — with open atriums with green trees, brighter colors and lighting — most are dark, smell strange, are old and creaky, have tons of frightening tubes, machines, noises, and for most people are places to be feared and avoided.

What amenities can be added to make it harder for patients to find excuses not to get that mammogram (valet parking, anyone?), not to go for that follow up, not to just give up and leave after waiting for two and a half hours in the waiting room?

Elise and I waited that long and the friendly folks at Apple handed out water, and updated us on our progress. The only water I could find in my local hospital emergency room last week (when we were there with my son) was a nasty water fountain that had stuff in it that would make a petri dish cringe. There were vending machines with chips, candy and soda, but it was broken.

Here are some suggestions:

Service. Imagine for a minute that when you enter a clinic, doctor’s office, or hospital, you are accompanied by a knowledgeable, helpful, pleasant individual who can speak to you in a non-condescending, non-judgmental manner, in language that you understand. Someone who can help you navigate a complex system of decision making.

Quality. Pretty obvious attribute. Quick–think the Mayo and Cleveland Clinic, Johns Hopkins. What is it about these institutions that people think of when asked to list “best” hospitals. How do you (should you?) rate different doctors? Nurses? Most people buy the iPhone because they believe they are buying a high quality product. How can we be sure we are buying high quality health care?

It’s interesting when you look at the literature. Quality is defined in many different ways by health care professionals and by patients. Sure there’s overlap. But in addition to better health outcomes, living longer and better, patients highly rank items such as convenience, hours of operation, waiting times, and location as quality indicators. Apple stores have better hours than most clinics and physician’s offices. My dog’s vet has better hours than most doctors.

Value. Why was a 15 year old willing to save her hard earned money for an expensive phone (and why was I willing to pay not insignificant monthly charges) for the iPhone? Because we thought it was worth it.

If only we could figure out a way to get people to see that it’s worth it to exercise, eat healthy, get annual check ups, not smoke — and get that colonoscopy.


Robin Strongin is an accomplished public affairs expert with more than 25 years of experience working in Washington, DC. Her areas of specialization include health care, science, technology and innovation. Robin has worked with and for Federal and state governments, regulatory agencies, Congress, think tanks, nonprofit organizations, corporations, coalitions and trade associations.

Strongin founded Disruptive Women in Health Care in 2008 to serve as a platform for provocative ideas, thoughts, and solutions in the health sphere. We recognize that to accomplish this, we need to call on experts outside of the health industry.

“The founding Disruptive Women have audacious hopes for our blog,” Strongin says. “We’re not managing change, we’re not waiting for cures. We’re driving change, we’re creating chaos, and we’re finding cures. In a nutshell: We’re disrupting the status quo in the health machine. “Our goal is to become the go-to health care blog — one that is recognized as a Petri dish for fresh ideas and bold solutions. Won’t you join us?”

She is also the president of Amplify Public Affairs, the next generation in public affairs, leading the way in the integration of new media and traditional communications strategies. With unequalled expertise in aligning allies, connecting voices, and promoting action, Amplify serves as a relationship builder, creating and sustaining win-win collaborations to move issues forward and influence targeted audiences. Through the blending of innovative communication technologies, credible coalition building, grassroots and top-tiered public affairs expertise, Amplify leverages connections to achieve targeted objectives in the public, private, and political arena.

Contact Robin by email, rstrongin@amplifypublicaffairs.net.