How agile is improving healthcare innovation and patient outcomes

5 min read


A host of factors are transforming the healthcare industry, including technology and automation, globalization, an aging population, and increased regulation. The COVID-19 pandemic has added to the urgency that healthcare providers be able to pivot quickly. The thriving and evolving business of healthcare depends on innovative leaders to drive operational excellence and deliver better patient outcomes. 

Agile, a set of management principles developed originally for the software industry, offers healthcare leaders a philosophy for approaching a wide range of challenges in healthcare management. In fact, according to a 2019 Bain & Company survey, nearly 80% of healthcare executives want their organizations to be more agile, yet many don’t know how to achieve that goal. Current professionals pursuing a future in healthcare leadership will benefit from understanding how agile healthcare fosters communication, iteration, and innovation across healthcare teams.

What is agile?

Agile is a team-based approach to project management. It entails defining a fixed-time phase called a sprint (typically a two-week period of goals and objectives). At the start of each sprint, teams generate a list of deliverables, prioritized based on consumer input. When each sprint ends, both the team and the customers evaluate the work and make changes for future sprints. 

Daily standups constitute another agile practice. These check-ins assemble team members to highlight progress on sprint goals and flag any blockers or impediments. A daily standup may consist of team members answering the following questions:

What did I work on yesterday?

What am I working on today?

What issues are blocking me (if any)?

Agile healthcare emphasizes patient satisfaction and rapidly deploying functional applications. To better understand agile applications for the industry, healthcare professionals should start with the history, principles, and benefits of this approach. 

The need for agile           

Agile emerged out of a need to streamline workplace processes in software development. Through the early 2000s, engineers found themselves stuck and disempowered by traditional, front-end planning methods; the popular waterfall methodology frustrated software developers who too often felt blocked by hiccups in the product development pipeline. 

Software developers recognized a need for an adaptive and responsive project management philosophy to guide workers and customers to better outcomes with greater consistency. Enter agile — a set of values and principles for project management. 

Today, agile helps leaders and teams in a wide array of industries, including finance, construction, marketing and advertising, and healthcare.

Agile principles and values              

Agile is a project management philosophy. As such, healthcare professionals can adopt agile principles in a variety of settings. Agile does not dictate what healthcare teams should do. Rather, it provides guiding principles that help teams decide how to prioritize work, communicate, and adapt to challenges along the way.

Healthcare teams who follow agile prioritize specific values:

Individuals and interactions (over processes)

Individuals and interactions (over processes)

Collaboration (over contracts and formal negotiations)

Collaboration (over contracts and formal negotiations)

Responsiveness (over rigid planning)

Responsiveness (over rigid planning)

With this focus, agile enables teams to tailor planning processes to meet specific patient needs, leading to greater potential for innovation in the modern healthcare industry.

The benefits of agile for healthcare organizations

Agile has been shown to produce excellent results. The benefits of adopting agile include:

Faster project development life cycles

Faster project development life cycles

Predictable schedules (enabled by sprints)

Predictable schedules (enabled by sprints)

Customer/patient-focused work, resulting in better outcomes

Customer/patient-focused work, resulting in better outcomes

Flexibility and adaptability in the face of changes

Flexibility and adaptability in the face of changes

Empowered teams

Empowered teams

Agile processes: case studies for adopting agile in healthcare

The above-mentioned 2019 Bain & Company survey report lays out the case for the use of agile methodology in healthcare. More than 60% of respondents indicated that speed to market and adapting rapidly to the changing needs of customers are only becoming more important as the industry evolves. Furthermore, 75% of healthcare executives say their agile teams outperform their traditional teams. 

Agile healthcare emphasizes clear communication, evaluation and feedback, and focused yet adaptable sprint goals. As such, healthcare leaders can adopt agile to great successes. Consider the following applications of agile in healthcare settings.  

Opening communication channels

Quality healthcare delivery requires excellent communication among doctors, nurses, pharmacists, specialists, and other professionals, as well as patients.

Agile healthcare encourages communication between and across teams. The ritual of daily standups, for example, eliminates unnecessary back-and-forth between members of a healthcare team, reducing the time to deliver crucial medical services and information. For patients, this can translate to shorter wait times for medical care — a benefit which can, in the most dramatic cases, make a difference between life and death.

Setting clear metrics

How does a healthcare team measure its operational effectiveness and success in responding to patient needs? Agile principles prompt teams to work as one in setting and evaluating key metrics and goals. 

For example, a family practice healthcare team may decide to start recording and measuring the time it takes between patient intake and when the patient talks to their primary care doctor. With sprint planning, teams can set and monitor progress on such goals while soliciting feedback from patients and adapting goals after each sprint.

Adapting to change

Agile allows healthcare teams the adaptability and flexibility they need to provide high-quality patient outcomes. For example, primary care teams at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston adopted agile principles to redesign annual wellness visits for patients to great success. 

The clinic assembled a team that focused on responsibilities rather than roles, allowing each team member to contribute their unique skills and insights. The agile process allowed teammates to learn from each other, use and formalize domain-specific knowledge, and create institutional memory.

The agile team then prototyped techniques, mapped workflows, and role-played with patient advocates to redesign the patient care pathway. With feedback provided by clinicians and patients, the team changed course and iterated rapidly to produce a streamlined care delivery pipeline. 

Innovating in healthcare

Healthcare evolves quickly; emerging healthcare technologies and delivery devices enable patients and healthcare providers to interact virtually and in new, accessible formats. 

Healthcare management should deploy best-practice methods to provide cutting-edge care to patients. Agile enables healthcare teams to innovate by empowering teams to quickly assess and address problems in care delivery, medical supply acquisition, personnel scheduling, and numerous other healthcare-related tasks. 

The bottom line

Innovative healthcare leaders look to agile to overcome challenges and make improvements in healthcare organizations. Agile can increase response times and productivity in healthcare, resulting in higher-quality care and better patient outcomes.               

Training agile healthcare leaders

Interested in learning more about how agile, and how innovative leaders can streamline quality healthcare services? Explore the Master of Global Management in Healthcare Services offered by Thunderbird School of Global Management and Edson College of Nursing and Health Innovation at Arizona State University. The innovative program goes beyond a typical MHA or MBA in healthcare by providing students with a wide-reaching preprofessional curriculum that combines management and healthcare courses.

Healthcare Innovation

Online Certificate

Mini-MBA in Healthcare

Online Certificate