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Ideas from All

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Back in 2000, Harry Lukens had a wild idea. Lukens, the chief information officer and senior vice president of Lehigh Valley Health Network, knew that too many good suggestions about ways technology could improve the Allentown, PA-based health system’s operations were going unnoticed. He’d hear ideas in the hallway from various staff but had no mechanism to trap them. “Things would get by us,” he says. “We had no informal or formal process to capture ideas.”

As a result, Lukens formed the “Wild Idea Team.” Initially the think tank comprised eight to 12 members of his IT department who had demonstrated creativity on the job. Soon, Lukens realized he needed to broaden the scope of the team. By having just IT staff on the group, Lukens recalls, “we were not able to be all things to all people. We needed to bring in people from other walks of life, so to speak.”

In 2002, Lukens expanded the team to 16 people, adding representatives from across the health system’s three hospitals—total membership now fluctuates from 16 to 18 people throughout the year. The purpose is straightforward: Analyze ways that hardware or software could improve operations. Lukens looked beyond management staff for his group, inviting one of the hospital’s phone operators to participate. Doing so upended some leadership stereotypes, he says. “In management we believe that if you’re the phone operator, you can’t have any ideas,” he explains. “We forget that when staff come to work, they don’t leave their talent and skill at home, where they are running boy scout organizations and church groups. We like to pretend they don’t know anything.”

The only rule that Lukens imposed on the Wild Idea Team is that no snickering is allowed. No idea is a dumb one, Lukens says. “During the meetings, I make sure that no one is stomped on,” he says. To encourage participation, Lukens challenges the staff. “I tell them that I perceive they are creative, but caution that they need to make a believer out of me.”

Lukens’ populist approach has paid off. Now in its eighth year, the Wild Idea Team has a waiting list of 30 staff members would who like to join. The group became so popular that Lukens limits membership to one year, rotating in new members annually. “There are never enough seats,” he says. “But you can’t have 30 people at once.”

During its monthly meetings, the group may float one or two new ideas. Any idea the group endorses initially goes through a vetting process. First, the group forms a small team to investigate the idea—looking at vendors and considering how the idea could be used. That group reports back at a later date, at which time the entire group decides whether to proceed. On the second pass, the entire group takes a closer look at the technology, perhaps inviting vendors, soliciting opinions from staff members who might be affected, and considering any impact on the hospital’s IT infrastructure. Any ideas that make it through the first two stages then enter a pass-fail pilot test before they are incorporated hospitalwide. About 7 percent of all ideas actually wind up in production, Lukens says.

Several ideas that originated with the Wild Idea Team have proven extremely popular with the staff, according to Lukens. For example, late last year Lehigh Valley implemented an automated discharge information form. The home-grown, Web-based application streamlines the way physicians gather instruction sheets after a patient leaves the hospital. The application has also spawned another tool built on the same platform, Lukens adds. The new application, set to roll out this year, facilitates the transfer of patient care instructions among residents who are changing shifts.

Another idea that passed muster and now enjoys physician use is a chemotherapy dosage calculator for oncologists. The application pulls information from Lehigh Valley’s hospital information system and tells oncologists what size doses should be based on a patient’s body mass. Prior to deploying the Web-based tool, physicians and nurses had to look up the information and make manual calculations. “Docs love this,” says Lukens.

Many ideas, however, have filed upon closer examination. Among the notable flops, Lukens recalls, were “wearable computers,” an idea that surfaced about five years ago. “They were like Dick Tracy,” Lukens says. “You would wear it on your wrist, and wear special glasses with a hologram device that let you see the monitor. I had guys really excited about it, but nobody is ever going to use it. The technology was just too farfetched.”

Still other suggestions are put on hold pending additional development. For example, the group recently considered “virtual keyboards,” which are projected images on a surface upon which a user types. Because they do not collect dirt, the keyboards could be valuable in the hospital’s burn center or operating room where infection control is a major issue. Despite its lifelike characteristics—such as a clicking sound when a user types—the technology is not ready for prime time, however. “It can’t handle three keystrokes at once, like control-alt-delete,” he says. “So we will continue to work with the vendor.”

—Gary Baldwin