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Forget the Moon, Focus on the Patient

Carrie Vaughan, for HealthLeaders Media, September 26, 2008

There isn't much incentive for healthcare organizations to embrace innovation. Most hospitals are paid on a fee-for-service model, so innovation isn't exactly going to bring in a huge windfall of cash. In general, hospitals provide good quality care (barring the occasional wrong-site surgery or wrong dosage of medication, of course), so why spend money or pull staff members away from direct patient care to focus on innovation. And what do employees actually get for being an innovator? A pat on the back, financial bonus, a preferred parking spot?

During the past two weeks, I have seen articles, surveys, and webcasts that have all focused on innovation. The message: You need to be innovative if you want to be successful in the future.

But there still appears to be a huge disconnect on what constitutes a truly innovative organization in healthcare. It's easy to identify innovators outside of the industry. Boeing, Disney, Apple, and Toyota are just a few of the companies that healthcare executives are looking to for ideas on how to tackle quality and safety, consumerism, product design, and process improvement in new and innovative ways.

The healthcare industry is definitely ripe for innovation. The status quo isn't working, there are emerging technologies and clinical advances that are transforming how care is delivered, and consumer expectations are evolving. Now is the perfect time to put on your thinking cap and come up with that Wow! idea that will transform healthcare and propel your organization into an elite class of innovators. There's just one problem. To be truly innovative it takes time, money, commitment, and risk. Unfortunately, healthcare organizations just don't have a surplus of all of these characteristics.

Healthcare by nature is about routine and structure?not the easiest environment to breed innovation. And people don't like change. How many times have you heard the phrase, "This is just how we have always done it"? Some healthcare employees will fight against change for no other reason than the organization has been using that particular process or product for years.

To build an innovative culture, the best place for healthcare executives to start may be with small, simple solutions that are designed to make employee?s jobs easier or the patient?s care safer. Ask employees how you can reduce emergency department wait times, eliminate falls, or reduce the amount of time spent on paperwork. The solutions offered may not be all that innovative to start. But it will get your staff thinking about ways to deliver safe, more efficient, consumer-friendly, and cost effective care. And sometimes the simplest idea can have the biggest impact?one of the most powerful tools to prevent medical errors and improve patient safety is, after all, a simple checklist. Once the idea of innovation starts to take hold in your organization and gain momentum, then you are more likely to find that Wow! idea.

Here are some of the elements that I have heard can help build a culture of innovation:

  • Communicate. Employees need to know more than the mission statement. They need to understand the goals of the organization and know where it is headed. This requires senior leaders to communicate, communicate, and communicate with the entire organization.
  • Get buy-in. Look at your organization's existing culture and subcultures and address any distrust or concerns that the staff may have regarding the organization's new focus on innovation. You need employees to embrace the concept and view it as more than a passing fad. Talking about innovation isn't enough. You need to devote actual resources?money?to the effort.
  • Embrace change. Employees need to be open to change. Show them how change can benefit them as well as their patients. Recruit champions of change in the organization and share best practices from other healthcare facilities.
  • Look outside healthcare. Expose employees to innovative cultures outside the healthcare industry. This may help them think more broadly, which is an essential component of innovation.
  • Push the envelop. Organizations need to tolerate risk and be able to abandon projects. Not every idea is going to be a grand-slam.
  • Set aside time. Allocate time for staff members to research trends, discuss ideas, and develop new processes, products, or business partnerships.
  • Be active. Healthcare executives need to be actively involved in the process?allocating money, supporting staff, breaking down barriers, exchanging ideas, and communicating with employees. 

Carrie Vaughan is leadership editor with HealthLeaders magazine. She can be reached at cvaughan@healthleadersmedia.com.
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