Making people, and the environment, healthier


Sep 29, 2022

Picture this scenario. An older man goes to urgent care with a persistent, painful cough. After listening to his cough and his breathing, the doctor recommends going to the hospital for imaging. From there, it’s recommended he get a lung biopsy. The biopsy confirmed the man’s fear: he had lung cancer. He was confused, for he was generally healthy and had never smoked in his life. So how did he get lung cancer? For years, he lived near a factory releasing large amounts of pollutants into the air.

Unfortunately, this scenario is not uncommon. Two of the most talked about issues today are health care and climate change. However, most discourse around the two topics confines them to silos, without focusing on the overlap between the topics. While it might seem natural to discuss the two as their own independent issues, doing so greatly minimizes the impact that the environment has on everyone’s health. 

Health and the environment are intrinsically linked. As a result, it’s critical for leaders in both fields to address these connections as they seek to formulate solutions. That may seem challenging given the historical separation of the two problems, but Modularity Theory can help us effectively address the interplay between them. 

Interdependence and Modularity

Modularity Theory, also known as the Theory of Interdependence and Modularity, is a framework for explaining how different parts of a product’s architecture relate to one another and consequently affect a product’s development.

Modular components exist when the way two elements are designed and interact with each other are fully predictable. Interdependent components exist when the way one part is made and delivered depends on the way other parts are made and delivered. Products and solutions are more interdependent when they are being optimized for functionality and reliability; once functionality and reliability are solidified, products and solutions can become more modular. 

For example, look at light bulbs and lamp sockets. This is an example of a modular interface; the stem of a light bulb is a standardized design, so any light bulb will fit into any lamp socket. 

Health and the environment’s deep connection

So what does product design have to do with health and the environment? The environment and health outcomes are interdependent: the quality of the environment we live in directly impacts our health outcomes. Experts understand there is a connection between the environment we live in and our health status. But interdependence, in this case, is not just about understanding the connection between the environment and health. It also informs how policymakers should approach development of a solution.

Solution development begins with a deep understanding of individuals’ health pain points. Poor environmental health leads to a number of health concerns, such as respiratory diseases, heart disease, and cancer. And worldwide, unsafe environments have been linked to 12 million deaths per year. 23% of all deaths (and 26% of deaths among children ages 5 and younger) result from entirely preventable environmental health problems. 

Environmental health is also a large player in health equity, as low-income and minority populations are more likely to live in areas with poor environmental quality and safety. People living in low-income communities, even in urban areas, are more likely to live in areas experiencing health clinic closures and physician shortages. Therefore, these communities are hit with both concerns in full force: poor personal health due to poor environmental health, and no reliable health care resources to call upon for help. 

Interdependence shows us that any solution to improve environmental health needs to consider the impact it will have on people’s physical health as well. Innovators cannot simply assume that helping reverse environmental damage will improve everyone’s health. People face different health consequences from poor environmental health, and different environments suffer in different ways; there is no black and white relationship between the two. People will also react differently to solutions proposed to improve environmental health. Because of that, both subjects need to be understood and tackled interdependently at the community and national levels—we can not look at the two issues in a modular way. 

Interdependence moving forward
Many health executives have already made pledges to help reduce the environmental impact of their hospitals and health systems. But policymakers looking to make long-lasting changes need to design with  interdependence in mind when addressing health care and the environment. Whatever policies they seek to implement that alter the climate do not exist in a vacuum, but will have long-term health implications as well. If policymakers look towards interdependence when seeking solutions for our ailing environmental health, they will improve more than just the climate. They’ll also enhance the health of people everywhere.

Jessica is a research associate at the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, where she focuses on business model innovation in health care, including new approaches to population health management and person-centered care delivery.