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  • IKEA is the largest furniture retailer in the world and a global powerhouse.

  • The IKEA model offers huge lessons on how simplicity, quality, affordability, and customer engagement, can achieve success across scores of countries and in dozens of languages.

  • What can our healthcare system learn from the IKEA model? And how can that model both reduce costs and save lives?


US health care is fractured, impossibly expensive, inconsistent in quality, and fraught with misaligned incentives. The medical system is on target to cost nearly 20% of the GDP—1 dollar out of every 5 spent in this country. And our outcomes, according to the Commonwealth Fund, were dead last again in 2014 among 11 similar nations, as they were 4 other times in the last 10 years. The Journal of Patient Safety reported in 2013 that unintended medical harm claims as many as 440,000 lives each year—the nation’s third leading cause of death.

These results come from the way the system is designed. We are getting exactly the results one might expect when everyone plays by the rules, regulations, and incentives of the game. It’s enough to leave the vastly well-intended provider community—those whose primary driver is to take good care of patients—feeling jaded and frustrated.

Imagine then how it feels when you are a patient. Far too often, a chronic or serious medical problem blindsides us—taking us to an alien world where we don’t understand the rules, and outcome and cost are wildly unpredictable. There are no “re-dos.” There is a sad irony in health care: you as a patient are the one with the most at stake, the least “insider” knowledge, and the greatest likelihood of living with potentially devastating consequences of this ignorance and powerlessness.

I learned this the same way most of us who are not medically trained do: when it happened to my family. I was a career news reporter before losing my father in 2006 to complications of a hospital-acquired Clostridium difficile (C. diff) infection that ruptured his intestines. I wondered how it could have happened; why no alarm bells sounded; why my questions weren’t answered. My reporter’s training kicked in—the deep certainty that solutions emerge when we are honest about realities. Since then I’ve worked, at a grass roots and policy level, to (a) understand the world of the patient, (b) understand the landscape in which providers and payers operate, and (c) attempt to bridge understanding between the 2, so they can work in better partnership.

I believe metaphor is a powerful tool to bridge understanding. This led me to use IKEA, the largest and most successful furniture retailer in the world, as a metaphor for fixing health care. Customers have made IKEA the world’s largest furniture retailer. Founded in 1943 by 17-year-old Ingvar Kamprad in Sweden, IKEA owns and operates 315 stores ...

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