From comics to television commercials to advice from a financial advisor, it is common to hear or see the phrase “70 is the new 50.” My interpretation: people are in denial about the fact that they are getting older, so industries have figured out how to take full advantage of that. When you consider that more than 14 percent of the current population in the United States is over age 65, the intensity of the way pharmaceutical and skin care companies are targeting that audience makes sense. It goes far beyond those companies, though. Look at the commercials for new cars, luxury vacations, and even online dating services. Much of the marketing focus is clearly directed toward people over age 65 who are looking for new experiences, bucket-list or otherwise, and who have the financial resources to support their interests.
While the early baby boomers are enjoying the benefits of their guaranteed pensions and savings from all those years with a lower cost of daily living, the rest of us are typically more cautious about letting go of any extra cash on hand. The consumer products industry is continually searching for better ways to get that money, though. It’s all cyclical and somewhat predictable, unless something happens to disrupt the normal course of events.
The same applies to health care organizations. Historically, equipment was put on some schedule for replacement at intervals of every five to 10 years. With that knowledge, the equipment manufacturers were able to plan their design and production cycle, with somewhat predictable cost and revenue streams. The different manufacturers would leap-frog ahead of each other with market share as their newest products would be released to market. Occasionally, something really different would be developed. When that happened, the manufacturers were confident the physicians would be impressed enough to pressure the hospitals to buy the new toys, even if outside of a typical replacement cycle. Those types of devices are referred to as disruptive technology, meaning they are products that simply create a whole new set of consumers.
That is one strategy for increasing revenue. There is also another one that we should be watching more closely. It doesn’t seem nearly as obvious when it happens, but potentially has an even more significant long-term financial impact. Have you noticed that the typical life cycle is getting shorter for many of the things we consumers use on a daily basis? Let’s look at three specific examples, a coffee pot, a hair dryer, and a washing machine. My father had one coffee pot from the time he married my mother in 1944 until he decided he wanted to get one of the “new style” automatic drip coffee makers in the early 1970s. The hair dryer I bought in college lasted more than 15 years, now the motors burn up about every eighteen months. My eight-year-old washing machine finally died completely last week. When I called the appliance repair guy to discuss whether it was worth repairing or not, he informed me that new ones of the same model, marketed as high-capacity and high-efficiency, are lasting about two years. That convinced me to go get the 15-year-old one that he had just rebuilt, sight unseen.
“Poor quality products would have guaranteed failure for a company in years past. Apparently now, it has become the new corporate strategy for success.”
Who came up with the definition of high-efficiency? We are expected to think those washing machines use less detergent, less water, and are good for even our most delicate fabrics. Wrong! The reviews I saw when I was shopping, before I called my repair guy, were all about how the clothes didn’t get as clean with the new washer and the spin cycle was wearing the fabric out after only a few washes. With that information, it sounds like these washers are only highly efficient for the manufacturers. It’s also no wonder they are proudly promoted by the garment industry.
Poor quality products would have guaranteed failure for a company in years past. Apparently now, it has become the new corporate strategy for success: more frequent repeat buyers. I don’t think the Healthcare Technology Management profession in general has shifted to that kind of philosophy yet. We are still struggling, too often, with the concept of adopting a run to fail service strategy on devices that do not show any increased safety or longevity as a result of periodic inspections. Maybe we just need to follow the lead of all those companies that have been driven to change under the external pressures of the economy. If we recognize those same pressures are shaping the long-term strategies of our employers, it should become easier to realize that we need to shift our way of thinking, too. Instead of viewing it as a failure when unable to complete a scheduled inspection, consider it a possible success in shifting toward an alternative maintenance strategy for that type of device. If it goes until the next scheduled inspection without a failure, then you have just created your own evidence to justify expanding the inspection interval to a period that is twice as long as it was originally, assuming the equipment is actually still in the facility and still being used during that period of time. If the device does fail before the next scheduled inspection, with a problem that could have been prevented if the previously scheduled maintenance had been performed, then you have just validated the need to continue the existing schedule. Either way, you end up with documented evidence to support the safety and effectiveness of your service strategy.
If the technology disruptions continue as predicted, with energy storage devices, genomic-based diagnostics, 3D printing and robotics, it won’t be long before none of us will even need to worry about whether a device needs maintenance. Any device failure would be immediately detected, reported, corrected and logged. It’s starting to look like the only thing we really have to worry about is whether we can make it to 70 before that all happens, and whether the current economic failures will have created some new definition of a successful retirement strategy by the time we get there.
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