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Innovative to the Core

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True innovation requires more time and money than many hospitals have available. Yet some organizations seem to find a way. How? It's all about the culture.

In an industry where life-saving information stuffed in easily lost paper folders is still the norm, the term innovation fits like a skimpy hospital gown. Yet the growing number of healthcare innovation awards and initiatives highlights the hunger that hospitals have for new ways to serve their patients.

What does innovation really mean? Technically speaking, invention describes the first time a new product, technique, or service is developed, and innovation is the first time it is implemented in a specific setting. Many health systems struggle to implement even incremental process improvements. For one thing, the industry's heavy regulation makes it difficult to try new things, says Lawton R. Burns, PhD, a professor of healthcare management at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton Center for Health Management and Economics. For another, innovation often requires physicians and nurses to abandon their accepted standard of practice—something that falls hard for highly trained professionals.

"I'll give you a third reason: Innovation takes time and money, and people who work at hospitals frequently don't have either," Burns says.

Despite these obstacles, some organizations have found a way to introduce breakthrough innovations. How? Sufficient financial resources certainly help, but highly innovative hospitals are different from most of their peers because they have created workplace cultures that keep the institutional focus on opportunities for change in the face of daily operational challenges.

Portrait of an innovative culture
What are the characteristics of an organization that creates a "culture of innovation" compared to an organization that does not?

Dedicated financial resources. "There has to be an environment within which people are not fixated on just survival, where they can actually think beyond the next few quarters to where we want to be in the next two, three, four, five years," says Ronald A. Paulus, MD, executive vice president and chief technology and innovation officer at Geisinger Health System in Danville, PA.

Dedicated managerial resources. "You need people who can devote at least part of their time to overseeing [innovation] projects," Burns says. "They're not continually putting out fires or responding to the everyday pressures." At Geisinger's three hospitals, Paulus leads a group that has time for a dual focus: Its staff constantly surveys the market for innovations in other industries, looking for concepts that might be useful in healthcare. But it also continually looks for innovations developed within a specific unit at Geisinger that could be scaled up to benefit the entire organization.

Constant staff communication. "If innovation is something that you only talk about four times a year, it's probably not happening very much," says Bruce Van Cleave, MD, chief medical officer and senior vice president for strategic management at Aurora (WI) Health Care, which has 12 acute-care hospitals. "But if it's part of the lexicon, you have a much better chance of having new ideas bubble up."

Leadership support. Aurora's previous CEO inspired his staff to innovate as the health system grew rapidly, Van Cleave says, and he worked with the board on a succession plan that would keep innovation as a core value after his tenure. At Geisinger, Paulus points to the five-year plan endorsed by the system's board of directors and implemented by the CEO that identifies innovation as a core component of the system's overall vision.

Courage to take risks. Innovative organizations are willing to try new things even knowing that some ventures will fail. "That's the mentality that has to be inculcated within the institution, and it has to be not just from the CEO, but from the managers of people who are going to be taking these risks," Paulus says.

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