Patience, Translators, and Optimism: What I Learned From Greg Downing

By Claire Topal

Greg Downing knows about innovation. He knows about the hope, the aspirations, and the blood, sweat and tears behind it; the tragic disappointment of its failures; and the surprise and fear in response to its unintended consequences.

How does he know this? Well, it’s his job as the Director of Innovation for HHS. He also sees innovation blossom and whither daily in his work coordinating program activities in the HHS IDEA Labs innovation think tank and accelerator.

I interviewed Greg recently for the Project HoneyBee Chronicles and was struck by three things he said.

First, while he clearly welcomes and actively pursues disruptive innovation in healthcare, he was careful to point out that our success or failure often lies in the implementation, not the conceptualization.

Greg says that what holds us back from success usually isn’t the technology or the innovation itself; rather, it’s our rush to do everything right away. It’s a mistake to overhaul a system from the outset instead of carefully establishing new approaches, iterating on those ideas, and letting go of what’s proven ineffective or distracting

Second, when I asked Greg what healthcare needed most, I was surprised by his answer: translators.

There is so much specialization in medicine, resulting in a lot of highly unique and refined knowledge among healthcare professionals. As that knowledge increases, Greg pointed out, “so, too does the importance of translators across different domains.”

In fact, that’s where Greg sees his role: “I understand how a new rule or regulation gets drafted and how it is meant to be implemented. I also appreciate what the general response will be, and how actual implementation might work.”

In an age where the flood of information can ironically give us tunnel vision, Greg underscored the importance of understanding all sides of something as necessary and complex as healthcare.

Finally, I was struck by Greg’s optimism and enthusiasm for what’s possible right now. He made me feel hopeful, too.

downingchronicles1A few things in particular invigorate him. The first is “smart, dynamic young talent coming into the fields of engineering and science.” Here, Greg pointed to the way Project HoneyBee “integrates disciplines and leverages the expertise of new talent—the nurses and other health professionals who are on the front lines of the health ecosystem.”

He’s also invigorated by the opportunities that the Internet and social media create for brilliant ideas to gain traction and make an impact in the near-term. Finally, he is motivated by the power of connecting good people who can help each other achieve breakthroughs.

Optimist, translator, innovation expert: we’re lucky to have such a person in a healthcare policy role.

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