It's time to share the water bottle

In August, our family spent many enjoyable hours watching the Summer Olympics in Beijing. But the highlight for me was watching the marathons.

I can somewhat relate to men and women running a distance of 26.2 miles at a time since, in my distant past, I have run in such races. But I am in awe of athletes competing at such a high level that they can average a sub-five-minute-per-mile pace.

I was totally consumed by the drama, the buildup to the race, the analysis, the tactics and the incredible physical stress these athletes endured. This was competition at the highest level. Survival of the fittest runner. To the winner goes the gold; stomp on that opponent!

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So imagine this scene about 10 miles into the race; two Ethiopian frontrunners were sharing water bottles with Eritrean marathoners. About two-thirds of the way through the race, it happened again; Samuel Wanjiru of Kenya and Deriba Merga of Ethiopia each took drinks from the same yellow water bottle.

It was an unusual display of sportsmanship at one of the most prestigious marathon events run on the globe. It’s not that these runners weren’t competitors in the extreme; there was only one gold medal to be won in Beijing, and I am sure the Ethiopians, Kenyans, Eritreans and any other runner who shared a bottle would do anything to win it. But this was more about doing what was necessary to endure the environment of the marathon; it enabled competition on the true measure of elite distance running – speed, endurance and strength of will.

Back at work the following week, my thoughts turned to healthcare, and I couldn’t help but relate the race I had just seen to the heated competition that we see among healthcare providers. I think there’s a lot to learn from the example of these Olympic athletes.

No one would question their desire to win the race, but that didn’t obviate the need or desire to share a drink along the way.

Marathon athletes are viewed as individualistic competitors, running the entire 26.2 miles in complete isolation. Usually, that’s not the case. Runners run in packs and draw strength from being with each other; they typically perform better in groups, synergistically supporting each other to keep pace. Those who run into trouble are usually those who go it alone or lose contact with the pack.

The thing that was striking about the race in Beijing was the oppressive heat and humidity. The environment was so oppressive that commentators thought the runners’ pace was unsustainable. But the success of the support in the group of lead runners enabled the incredibly talented athletes to overcome the negative environment and let their true capabilities shine through. Wanjiro shattered the 24-year-old Olympic marathon record by more than two minutes.

I think the implications for healthcare providers are obvious. The financial environment for most healthcare providers is very negative and difficult. Perhaps it’s never been worse, and it’s only going to get harder. The competitive juices are flowing, because survival seems to be at stake.

It’s time to share the water bottle. It’s time to work together on things that help competitors finish the race; it’s time to find the synergy that helps everyone perform to their optimal level.

Last month, we wrote about rapid adoption networks being supported by VHA Inc., in which hospitals in a region work together to help each other improve clinical quality and patient safety. I’m sure some of those RAN participants compete on some level, but cooperation trumps competition when it comes to quality and safety.

Such cooperation needs to be the rule, not the exception. It needs to extend creatively to those in industry segments, and between industry segments.

For example, the push is on to implement electronic health records. Typically, providers install these records in quiet isolation; it’s a long process, and the knowledge gained by one provider often isn’t passed onto another. Mistakes made in implementation are likely to be unknowingly repeated by subsequent installers.

This can’t go on, folks. We’re talking about hundreds of millions of dollars in IT investment, and we have to do a better job of learning from others’ experiences.

This won’t be optional. The industry will be given only a short period of time to show it can reign in healthcare costs before, as part of inevitable healthcare reform, the industry will be told how to cooperate.

We’re better than that. Edicts issued by fiat have a poor track record in healthcare.

The choice is in our hands now. Before we hit the wall, it’s time to share the water bottle.

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