Lessons from Transformational Medical Advances

Career Focus

To inspire and guide students who want to help transform health care — or other industries — by learning from life-changing advances from the past.

Course Content and Organization

Media routinely tout “revolutionary” medical advances that often fizzle. We will study the case histories of treatments and tests that have already proven to have profoundly altered medical practice and the healthcare industry. These case histories, drawn mainly from the last quarter of the 20th century, reveal patterns still common in medical innovation today. They show how protracted “multiplayer” innovations – not dramatic solitary leaps – typically produce transformational results.

A framework of practical knowledge shows the common tasks and tradeoffs of multiplayer innovation while the memorable twists and turns of each story contain valuable lessons on their own.

In addition to our core case histories, the course material includes: 1) Traditional ‘decision’ cases designed to develop skills in applying historical lessons; and 2) Readings on techniques that enable multiplayer innovation in any industry.

Two introductory case histories exemplify the power and difficulties of multiplayer innovation: developing tests and treatments for HIV/AIDS and permanently curing ulcers with antibiotics (instead of treating them with antacids). The next three modules successively examine the development of life-changing drugs, devices, and surgical procedures.

While we comprehensively analyze each advance, we emphasize different multiplayer tasks and techniques of innovation. Thus, in the HIV/AIDS case, we pay particular attention to ‘goal setting and problem specification’; later, readings and discussions of drug development highlight the forming of ‘conjectures’ and then ‘testing and evaluation’ of those conjectures.

Grading and Administration

Course grades will be based on class participation (50%) and a final paper (50%) that may be written individually or by teams of up to 3 students.

The instructor will be happy to meet students before – and of course during — the Spring semester. To arrange a meeting, please send an email to amar@bhide.net (or after July 1 to abhide@hbs.edu)