The Bicycle of Healthcare Innovation

Published on December 5, 2019

by Spencer Pratt, Vice President, Product

S.S. Wilson, a former lecturer in engineering at Oxford University, published an 11-page article on bicycle technology in the March 1973 edition of Scientific American.

In the article, Wilson measured the efficiency of locomotion for various species on the planet. Wilson writes of the bicycle:

“When one compares the energy consumed in moving a certain distance as a function of body weight for a variety of animals and machines, one finds that an unaided walking man does fairly well (consuming about .75 calorie per gram per kilometer), but he is not as efficient as a horse, a salmon, or a jet transport. With the aid of a bicycle, however, the man’s energy consumption for a given distance is reduced to about a fifth (roughly .15 calorie per gram per kilometer). Therefore, apart from increasing his unaided speed by a factor of three or four, the cyclist improves his efficiency rating to No. 1 among moving creatures and machines.”

Wilson illustrated a simple yet profound concept. Without aid, the efficiency of human movement is rather unimpressive. With aid of the bicycle, human efficiency ascends above and beyond all species.

Steve Jobs alluded to this article in an interview in 1990. He likened the bicycle’s impact on human locomotion to the computer’s impact on human information processing: “It made a really big impression on me that we humans are tool builders. And that we can fashion tools that amplify these inherent abilities that we have to spectacular magnitudes. And so for me, a computer has always been a bicycle of the mind. Something that takes us far beyond our inherent capabilities.”

As I reflect and draw parallels to healthcare innovation, I believe there are four primary ways health plans can gain efficiency and productivity in ways similar to what the bicycle and computer did for human transport and information processing:

  1. Streamline internal and external data assets. This includes market and competitive data, eligibility and claims data, member touch points, consumer data, and more. This centralized data repository eliminates barriers and unlocks informed strategies across the organization.
  2. Enable distribution of information and insights to empower data-driven decision making through consolidated, automated, and interactive reporting.
  3. Replace retrospective descriptive analytics with forward-looking predictive analytics. Identifying and preventing future adverse health outcomes before they occur is much more impactful than identifying and reacting to past events. Prevent illness – don’t treat it.
  4. Understand the consumer. Currently, communication channel preferences, social determinants of health, and care management program interests are largely ignored in favor of clinical risk modeling. The patient-to-consumer revolution is here to stay, and consumer experience is paramount to quality ratings, care plan compliance, member retention, brand quality, and much more.

In Wilson’s 1973 article, he stated, “It is worth asking why such an apparently simple device as the bicycle should have had such a major effect on the acceleration of technology. The answer surely lies in the sheer humanity of the machine.” It’s time for health plans to start prioritizing investments in seemingly simple capabilities: streamlining data, distributing information, looking forward not backward, and understanding their customers.

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