Q&A | Innovation and Disruption

Innovation in hospitals can ‘turbocharge’ advances

Q&A | Innovation and Disruption

Innovation in hospitals can ‘turbocharge’ advances

  • “Innovisits” to other healthcare organizations are one way to learn about innovative ideas and partnerships.
  • Once you learn the processes and some of the methods and the tools that go along with those, you can apply innovation anywhere in your organization.
  • The CEO, clinicians and board members should be included in innovation-focused visits to other healthcare organizations.

“When we think about innovation, we shouldn’t think it’s about three people in the basement alone coming up with all these wonderful ideas. It really is more about teams, platforms and partnerships. And that is a good place for healthcare to be because these partnerships will end up accelerating or turbocharging a lot of our innovation efforts,” says Phil Newbold, CEO emeritus of Beacon Health System in Indiana and author of the book Wake Up and Smell the Innovation!

In this interview, Newbold discusses the importance of what he calls “innovisits,” which are visits to innovative organizations to observe what they do and learn about the value of partnerships that support innovation.

How did the idea of visiting other companies to learn about their innovation processes start?

Newbold: I was attending a conference presentation when the late healthcare futurist Leland R. Kaiser asked the question, “Why don’t hospitals and health systems have R&D [research and development] functions just like everywhere else?” So, we decided to go out across corporate America and find out what was going on with their R&D new product development. We found that everyone in corporate America seemed to be focusing on innovation.

Don’t companies resist when you ask to visit them and learn about their innovative processes?

Newbold: No, usually they’re flattered and want to talk about it. We just pick up the phone and ask, and we’ve never been denied. That was how we learned how their innovation programs were structured, what the incentives were and how they organized. And they were so forthcoming. After every visit, we ask them, “Where else should we go?” They are happy to recommend another organization and open the doors for us.

How do you apply the learnings of the innovisit?

Newbold: Once you learn the processes and some of the methods and the tools that go along with those, you can apply innovation anywhere in your organization. That was an “ah-ha” moment for us — you don’t use a different innovation process if you have a new initiative in an outpatient area, versus inpatient versus home health. It’s all the same process. And the companies we visited were more than willing to share lessons learned. They said, “Here are our mistakes, here’s what to do first, and second and third.”

Who goes on the innovisits?

Newbold: It’s important to have the CEO go on the innovisits, because that helps get people excited. It’s also good to take some members of your board, so they can talk about it with other board members firsthand. It’s also great to take a physician or two, because they can convince their medical staff colleagues of changes.

When you start getting into innovation, the medical staff says, “Don’t we buy a lot of things already that are innovative?” And the answer to the physicians is, “Of course we buy it. We’re talking about developing some of these things ourselves. So, we’ll continue to buy new catheters, new surgical instruments and new pharma. But we’ll also have the capacity and the ability to begin to design and come up with some of these things on our own. Because now we know a little bit about how to design some of these processes.”

After you’ve done several of these visits and learned about the innovative methods, what typically are the next steps?

Newbold: The first thing you want to do is get a board approved policy that gives management a little cover, a little protection and some funding for a few years. Because it’s a startup, it’s a new skillset and a new competency like anything else. And you’re not going to be good at it on day one.

On the front end, you need to do a lot of research on underlying needs to try to target, segment and zero in on what is exactly the problem that you’re trying to solve with your innovation. A lot of people just say, “Well, it’s all about coming up with an idea.” An idea isn’t very useful if it doesn’t solve somebody’s problem. So, you really do start on the front end doing an awful lot of research.

What are other important elements to an innovation program at a hospital?

Newbold: Partnerships are also important. You don’t have to go it alone on this. The partners we recommend are called “platform partners.” Platforms are like what Uber uses and Lyft and Airbnb. They link everything together.

For example, at Beacon we partnered with an organization that helped us develop a platform so that we’re able to offer virtual urgent care visits. I could have gone over to the IT department and said, “Come up with a virtual urgent care app for a smartphone.” And they probably could have done a decent job coming up with that. But a platform connects into the electronic medical record; it connects into our billing system; it connects into our referral systems; it connects into our appointment systems; and it connects to everything. That’s what a platform does.

Who typically runs the innovation department in a hospital?

Newbold: If you’re serious about it, you hire somebody from the outside who knows the process and have that person build out the department and focus on those high-priority areas that will establish that function right at the top. I really caution people that if innovation is 10% or 20% of five- or 10-people’s time, it’s really easy for that to get crowded out with the press of everything else.

Any other tips for innovation at hospitals?

Newbold: Hospital and health system employees are great resources for testing innovative ideas and initiatives. When we first started doing virtual urgent care visits, we offered that service free to our employees. They tested the idea. We made all our mistakes at a small scale and with our own employees, and we found out what worked and didn’t. By the time we rolled out the program to the whole community, we worked all the bugs out by testing it first with our employees. 

Interviewed for this article:

Phil Newbold is CEO emeritus, Beacon Health System (newbold.visionaries@gmail.com).

About the Author

Ed Avis

is a freelance writer in Chicago (mailto:edavis@edavisassociates.com).

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