The Blind Men and the Elephant

This entry is part 1 of 3 in the series The Others: How Outsiders Can Help Health Care IT

Most of you are familiar with the “blind men and the elephant” parable. Jainism, one of the world’s oldest religions, is often credited as its originator. In the Jain version, six blind men describe an elephant by touching its different body parts. One man touches a leg, a second a tusk, a third an ear and so on. Each man believes by his limited impression that he understands and can explain the true nature of the elephant as a whole. However, when the blind men compare their discoveries, they all disagree and fall into conflict. The ancient Jain text uses this parable to address the manifold nature of truth: that it is impossible to understand something consisting of infinite properties without a method of describing all possible viewpoints. 1

This parable offers insight into our struggle with achieving Health Care Information Technology (HIT) success. In the myriad of our job postings, we almost always demand health care experience when assembling resources to work on HIT projects, and we reject or discount non-health care perspectives. However, as the parable suggests, similar viewpoints inherently limits us by excluding other perspectives.

We all know that our health care system continues to face many intersecting challenges as well as a volatile future. Payment systems, delivery organization structures and functions, consumer demand and satisfaction are rapidly evolving. Powerful and advanced HIT will continue to play an important role. But our industry’s history of HIT success is spotty. While there are many lessons learned through these (sometime) successes and (too frequent) failures, there remains a great deal still to learn.

We compound this lack of success by constantly demanding HIT innovation. The PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PwC) “Top 10 Health Care Issues to Watch in 2015” underscores the extent of our commitment to HIT innovation to help resolve health care challenges. Literally every item in the PwC list involves significant HIT investments. A few examples: using patient/physician high-tech personal medical kits to manage care; balancing data privacy versus convenience; managing population health to improve outcomes; extending and delegating physician roles by digitally-monitoring patients. 2

Successful innovation in health care and in HIT demands only a huge investment. More importantly, it demands creativity – a characteristic we underappreciate. What contributes to limited creativity? The Jain parable above may offer a powerful insight.

Let’s examine how we approach health care recruiting as an example. There is a commonly held belief that unless an employee deeply understands health care or has previous health care job experience, he or she cannot really meet the need or possibly succeed in the job. As a result, we regularly demand health care experience when recruiting resources for HIT projects, and reject or discount applicants who come from other industries.

Granted, health care does have some unique attributes – culture is a major one – yet it seems plausible we make too much of these differences in thinking outsiders cannot effectively contribute to the health care environment. It is as if we are all behaving as Jain “blind men” – believing our personal experience and perspective is all there is to know. We gain further insight when we study the underlying Jain principle of Anekāntavāda (literally, “non-absolutism”). This principle describes how we all perceive truth and reality differently from diverse points of view and that no single viewpoint is complete. 3 This suggests we need new and different perspectives as we create innovation in HIT.

#Anekantavada #HCIT #innovation @MalcolmGladwell #NIH #Outliers #healthcare @NaveenJain

  1.  Dhruva, A. B. (ed.) (1933). Syādvādamanjari of Mallisena with the Anya-yoga-vyavaccheda-dvatrimsika of Hemacandra. Bombay: Sanskrit and Prakrit Series No. 83, pp. 23-25
  2.  PriceWaterhouseCooper Health Research Institute (Dec 2014). “Top health industry issues of 2015”. Retrieved from
  3.  The Pluralism Project of Harvard University, “Anekantavada: The Relativity of Views”. Reprinted from Eck, Diana L. (February 1, 2002) On Common Ground: World Religions in America, second edition. New York: Columbia University Press. ISBN-13: 978-0231126649. Retrieved on March 2, 2015 from
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Posted on November 4th, 2015 in Innovating Health Care IT
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