Lessons from the hops

August 23, 2012 − by Sarah McAfee − in Innovation, Leadership, Systems Change − Comments Off on Lessons from the hops

Colorado is a beer mecca—our craft brewing industry is nationally recognized for its innovative and high-quality products. Colorado, too, has garnered accolades for its leadership in health care systems change, from Grand Junction’s low-cost, high-quality model to our Colorado Health Benefit Exchange, one of the only exchanges in the country to be created with bipartisan support. Perhaps it was some light reading that got me thinking, or perhaps it was the pint of Colorado-brewed bliss in my hand, but I came to the conclusion this weekend that Colorado’s health care system could learn much from Colorado’s craft brewing scene.

There are a number of similarities between the two industries, from a willingness to experiment, to their economic role in a community. Colorado’s Oskar Blues introduced the world to craft brews in cans, and our state is also leading the way in pioneering payment reform initiatives. The willingness to be first, to try and risk failure, is how great change happens. Both breweries and health care facilities also play crucial roles in the community and the economy. Wynkoop Brewery helped revitalize Denver’s lower downtown area and countless small breweries around the state bring in tourism and development dollars. Similarly, our rural hospitals are community anchors that provide jobs and attract residents. Both health care and brewing are unique among industries in that there will always be a place for both large and small scale operations. Large urban hospitals and tiny rural safety net clinics coexist in the same way Coors and our hundred-plus small breweries do.

The wildly successful craft brewing industry has many other lessons to share, though, beginning with its collaborative approach. Trade secrets aren’t very common in brewing, because most brewers are more than happy to share. That approach is relatively foreign to health care, where outcome data is classified, technology is proprietary, and competition for patients reigns. Embracing a culture of cooperation and collaboration could save time and money while increasing innovative partnerships.

Most of Colorado’s small breweries think big when it comes to maximizing their efficiency. By looking outside of their four walls to the other steps in production, they have found ways to improve the whole system. Many contract with local farmers who grow the raw materials they need to brew, and then return the spent grain to the same farmers who feed their livestock with it.  As our Health Connections Issue Brief Series shows, there is a significant opportunity for more efficient use of our health care dollars if we could think more broadly about what affects our health and how we can improve it outside of the hospital.

Lastly, there is a passion for the craft of brewing and a singular focus on the end goal of brewing better beer that has helped the industry reach new heights. Too often our health care conversations stall in disagreements over reimbursement levels or scopes of practice. Our providers burn out because they spend more time on bureaucracy than helping patients, and lose their passion for their craft. Refocusing the conversation on our common goal of improved health for all would be a major step forward.

Colorado is already a leader in health care in many ways. Being a leader means recognizing and capitalizing on opportunities to improve though, so I’d suggest we take notes from some of Colorado’s most successful small business owners—our brewers—and think outside the bottle. Cheers!

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About Sarah McAfee

Sarah McAfee
Sarah McAfee
Director of Communications