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What Creativity Can Do To Improve Health Care

Chase Adam of Watsi talks about health care innovation, safety, and big data.

What Creativity Can Do To Improve Health Care
[Image: Abstract via Shutterstock]

Chase Adam, one of Fast Company’s Most Creative People of 2014, is the founder of Watsi, a global crowdfunding platform for health care that enables anyone to directly fund medical care for people in need. Watsi, a nonprofit venture founded in 2012, works with medical partners in various countries to vet patients who are in need and require life-changing care they cannot afford.

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Co.Exist editor Jessica Leber spoke with Adam about what it means to be creative in the field of health care. The Q&A was condensed and lightly edited.

What does it mean to you to be creative in your field?

Creativity simply means coming up with something new that’s never been done before. The big thing that we try to do at Watsi is to drive everything from first principles. Every single decision, no matter how simple or commonplace it seems, we try to think about it from first principles and do whatever we think, based on the consensus on our team, makes the most sense.

That said, I don’t think what we’ve done at Watsi is even that creative. I think, with many things, the majority of creativity is that 80/20 distribution, where 80% of the thing you’re building is probably coming from something that’s been done in the past. And I think maybe 20% is doing something very new and very innovative.

Let’s take Watsi, for example. People have been raising money for health care arguably since the beginning of time and all we’re doing it is applying technology and putting it online. We’re doing something people have always done and just doing it a compelling way.

How do you really think through each decision from scratch?

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I think it comes from humility. I think a lot of innovation happens on the periphery or the fringes of an industry. And we’re certainly a team where we have some medical expertise on our staff, but the majority of us are really approaching health care from a patient perspective and from a donor perspective. You can equate that with being a consumer as opposed to a doctor or an insurance provider or a politician or a government person.

So, for us, driving things out of first principles is just sort of a necessity. It’s the first time we’re really approaching a lot of these problems and so we’re forced to come with new solutions.

In the last year and a half, we’ve look at each other quite often and have said, it’s crazy, but in a lot of ways we’re actually building an insurance company. When I launched Watsi, I never thought I was starting an insurance company. But when you think about an insurance company, all it is is a network of payers and hospitals that are providing care. Watsi is that exact thing. At this point in time those payers are just individual donors on the Internet, but the dynamic between the two parties are exactly the same, down to negotiating the cost of care and doing the due diligence and the health claims fraud and all of that.

We’re building the same system, and we never even realized it at the beginning. And I think that not realizing that, and kind of the humility of our approach, has allowed us to be creative. I think again 80% of the decisions are probably the same decision are the same that the majority of insurance companies have made. But that 20% is driving things from first principles.

How can creativity improve health care?

With health care, it’s a bit of touchy subject. Look at gaming. It’s a sector that’s in Silicon Valley that’s grown quickly, but I think the reason for that is there’s very little risk. Even if they end up failing, it’s not that big a deal. In health care the risks are larger. Failure can in some way harm people or even result in the death of the a human being. I think there’s definitely a need for regulation, and because of that regulation, there’s a slower evolution in health care.

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So I think the biggest question, when it comes to creativity, is where and how can we be creative–and where should we not try to be too creative, at least as of yet. It’s finding these high benefit, low-risk areas. Like with the Fitbit and with the Nike Fuelband or the Jawbone Up, that’s a place where you can have a lot of young, smart creative people experiment a lot with health care, and the risks are very low.

Figuring out where the balance between innovation and safety and regulation is really important. Once we have those answers, it’s just throwing as much gas or as much horsepower into those areas where we can be as creative as possible and hoping that begins to evolve or at least impact or influence the lesser open-to-innovation areas.

How can better data or big data improve health care?

I think it comes down to the more information you have, the better decisions you can make. A lot of times we talk about Watsi being the layer of transparency in global health.

We have, in a lot of ways, better data than some medical organizations or insurance companies in the United States. We can tell you down to the line item why a procedure costs $300 in Kenya and $1,000 in Tanzania. And its actually pretty tough to get access to that information in the United States. I think that’s something that’s fundamentally going to change in the future. People are going to require more transparency in all aspects of our lives, and especially in health care.

What impediment or challenge do you often personally face?

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There are things that I know to be unequivocally true. It’s what I know in my gut, what would I bet my life on at Watsi? I think that in my lifetime there will be a universal health care system. One hundred percent. There will be a health care system that will provide to people regardless of what country you are born into, how old you are, what nationality, etcetera. I think at some point in the future every single person will have access to a basic level of health care. I don’t know exactly when it’s going to happen, but i know it’s going to happen.

What’s really challenging is balancing that with the day to day decisions that I have absolutely no idea if they’re right or wrong. The big picture day to day for me is to try to find that balance of what do I know to be true, and what do i have absolutely, and what I have no idea about and I know that i’m just taking an informed guess and the we’re just going to iterate and evolve and adapt as fast as possible.

How do you tackle that challenge?

I have this internal document that I call the master plan. It constantly changes but that’s essentially where I have these big three stepping stones to Watsi’s ultimate success. And every couple of months I change that document. What I find interesting is that the overarching ideas have never changed in the last three or four years.

What does the health field need more of?

The health field, at least in the United States, it’s very B2B heavy, it’s very enterprisey. And as a result the consumer space has been slow to evolve, but I think there’s a big opportunity there. I would hope that there will be more people putting thought into sort of the user experience in health care.

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What’s your best advice for a freshman in college today?

I would say find something to work on that you care about more than yourself.

About the author

Jessica Leber is a staff editor and writer for Fast Company's Co.Exist. Previously, she was a business reporter for MIT’s Technology Review and an environmental reporter at ClimateWire.

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