How the Lessons of Bell Labs Can Help Fix U.S. Healthcare

The story of Bell Labs shows that collaboration points the way to a new infrastructure of healthcare.

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Marc Dunkelman is a fellow at the Johns Hopkins Center for Advanced Governmental Studies.

In recent years, America's obsession with innovation has frequently focused exclusively on Silicon Valley—and for good reason. What Steve Jobs did for Apple—and what the leaders of Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Microsoft have done to drive their companies to the pinnacle of global commerce—offer important lessons for professionals across the full spectrum of the American economy.

But a new book by journalist Jon Gertner, The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation, suggests that another firm is too often left out of the story: Bell Labs. A host of technologies that we now take for granted—transistors, solar cells, lasers, and the operating system Unix among them—were all invented by a firm that embraced an entirely different model of innovation, focused less on breaking out of existing paradigms, and more instead on nurturing a long-term collaboration. What can we learn from that story? More than that, what can it teach us about how to tackle America's most vexing long-term challenge: covering the costs of caring for members of the Baby Boomer generation as they age?

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Today, the financial burden wrought by America's burgeoning population of elderly citizens lies at the heart of concerns over whether the nation's best days have come and gone. Whatever the short-term demands of climbing out of the Great Recession, the explosive growth of Medicare makes the choice between higher taxes or steeply reduced benefits seem inevitable. To hear some politicians frame the issue, America will either need to embrace European-style socialism, or else let the elderly die in squalor and destitution.

Bell Labs may point the way to another alternative. The truth is that even after the digital revolution has transformed the world of business, we have broadly maintained the same stale approach to caring for the elderly. Nursing homes and hospitals, stovepiped like the federal entitlement programs that help finance them, can rarely shape the networks of care that would drive a broadly preventative approach. The elderly cycle in and out of institutions even though new technologies (if partnered with a dynamic network of service providers) might keep them healthier and happier at home. And the result is an expensive system that too often stifles real innovation.

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That is where the lessons of Bell Labs come into play. The company's long-time chairman, Mervin Kelly, built an organization designed to break researchers out of the stovepiped atmosphere of industrial America. The architecture of its laboratory building in Murray Hill, New Jersey—long hallways that seemed to go on forever—forced researchers from different disciplines to interact with one another on an everyday basis. And Bell Labs set up satellite facilities in manufacturing plants so that engineers and workers on the front lines could exchange new ideas.

Properly designed, the same sort of infrastructure could radically change the way America cares for the Boomer generation. Today, because our focus is on institutions like nursing homes and hospitals, we have failed to develop connections between the social service providers who, if networked together, could help more Americans maintain their independence. The occupational therapist does not know the visiting nurse. The dietician has never met the prescribing gerontologist. The driver at Meals on Wheels does not coordinate with the volunteer from Catholic Charities.

If the infrastructure surrounding an old person at home were dynamic—if those providing care and services were in constant touch—new synergies would develop between providers in much the same way they did between the employees of Bell Labs. The intense pressure to cut away at Medicare and Medicaid would let up. And most importantly, more Americans would be able to live independently than ever before.