It can be cogently argued that the US healthcare system needs some fixing.

A massive, sprawling, ever-voracious head of snakes costing us $3.2 trillion annually and now constituting nearly 18% of our gross national product,1 the US healthcare system could surely benefit from some creative ideas.

The problem is, health care in this country has become corporatized and highly politicized. It’s controlled largely by lobbyists working for big-money interests, and there is tremendous inertia and resistance to change. Simply stated, no one wants to lose his or her slice of the pie.

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Most physicians, nurses, and other healthcare professionals aren’t thrilled with how things are going, nor are government officials, business leaders, and other industry stakeholders. Least of all satisfied perhaps is the person who should be at the very center of our healthcare system—the patient. Today’s healthcare consumers have become unwitting pawns in a giant chess game over which they have little or no control. No wonder so many of us feel increasingly frustrated and powerless.

But there is an answer that can free us from the quagmire—creativity.

While most of us think of creativity as something reserved for music, writing, theater, cinema, painting, dance, or theoretic physics at the highest level (eg, Einstein’s theory of relativity), creativity is in fact a viable tool that both individuals and organizations can use daily to improve their performance and competitive advantage. And whether we can hear it or not, the US healthcare system is crying out for less sameness, less status quo, and more creativity.

To learn more about this highly potent and largely underutilized tool, I turned to one of the nation’s foremost authorities on creativity, Steven R. Pritzker, PhD, professor, founder, and former director of Creativity Studies Specializations, Saybrook University, San Francisco, and coeditor-in-chief of The Encyclopedia of Creativity.2

Dr Cooper: First, can you please define creativity for me? What’s the best definition?

Dr Pritzker: Sure. Anything new and useful. If it’s new but not useful, it’s not creative. And if it’s useful but lacking newness, it doesn’t qualify as creative either.

Dr Cooper: The problems facing our current healthcare system are large and pressing. How can something with such a simple definition help [those of] us employed in health care find our way out of the morass?

Dr Pritzker: Creativity in and of itself doesn’t have to do anything. Quite frankly, creativity doesn’t care whether it gets used or not. Nor does it have a moral imperative one way or the other. It wears no white halo or devil’s horns. There have certainly been many examples in history of dark uses of creativity. The development of the atomic bomb, which was dropped on Hiroshima, is but one example of creativity put to destructive use.

On the other hand, the potential positive uses of creativity in medicine and within the healthcare industry in general are truly without limit. This is a largely untapped resource, full of promise and opportunity.

I, for one, would like to see a course on creativity incorporated into the curriculum at every single medical school in the country. It would teach the doctors of tomorrow so much about themselves and about problem-solving techniques they could use daily, no matter what their eventual medical specialty. They could also learn how to prescribe creativity as a drug-free alternative or adjunctive treatment for a wide variety of conditions, including PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder], schizophrenia, adolescent behavioral problems, and even terminal illness.

Dr Cooper: What are the factors that serve to undermine our ability to be more creative, and how can we get past the obstacles to fashion a healthcare system that will be of greater benefit to all?

Dr Pritzker: The factors are many. I would say openness is the most important attribute or ingredient needed. We must be open to change before change can occur.

Other countries seem to achieve better preventive care and lower morbidity and mortality at far less cost than we see in the US. What has prevented us, I think, from adopting similar approaches is the entrenched interests out there. As long as our legislators are influenced more by lobbying groups than by what is best for patients, nothing substantial will change.