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3 Ways NKU's Innovation Institute is Impacting Healthcare

Analysis  |  By Mandy Roth  
   November 16, 2018

Partnership between health system and university serves as a model to address workforce shortages and population health, while spurring innovation.

What do you do when your hospital system faces a growing workforce shortage, your patient population is in need of population health initiatives to address issues like obesity and addiction, and you could use additional resources to spur innovation? To address these issues, St. Elizabeth Healthcare in Edgewood, Kentucky, partnered with Northern Kentucky University (NKU) to open the Institute for Health Innovation.

Last month, NKU's Health Innovation Center officially opened on the university's Highland Heights, Kentucky, campus, seven miles from Cincinnati. The $105 million project serves as home to the NKUs College of Health Professions and the Institute. The Kentucky General Assembly allocated $97 million toward construction of the facility, and St. Elizabeth Healthcare invested $8 million to build and equip its two-story simulation center and also to support the Institute's executive director position.

The partnership between the health system and the academic institution serves as a model for communities grappling with population health issues and a declining number of healthcare workers.

Rather than trying to resolve these challenges in separate silos, the combined approach between institutions could have a greater impact on the region, says Valerie Hardcastle, PhD, vice president for health innovation at NKU and St. Elizabeth Healthcare executive director for the Institute of Health Innovation.

"Our mission is to develop pioneering solutions to health challenges facing northern Kentucky and to drive change that directly addresses urgent unmet health needs," says Hardcastle. Much of that will be accomplished through population health initiatives, an intentional focus for a number of reasons.

"NKU has a history of, and is very committed to, supporting the region and has always enjoyed a very deep collaborative relationship with a lot of different organizations within the community," says Hardcastle.  "But it doesn't have aspirations to become a large R1 type of institution. In focusing on health, it did not make sense to look at the sort of traditional research that one finds at a medical college. Where we could make a difference is working on policies, implementation, and practices that affect the community right now. It fits with our personality, it fits with our commitments to the region, and it also will have the greatest impact in the shortest period of time."

Following are 3 ways the Institute for Health Innovation is impacting healthcare dynamics.

1. Population Health Initiative for Early Identification of Substance Users/Abusers

The Institute obtained a Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) grant to address the opioid crisis and cross-substance use through a program with the Owen Country school system. Rather than focus on prevention, as many programs already do, this initiative targets early users in middle and high school.

Beginning in October, nurses, counselors, resource officers, and interested teachers are being trained on an evidence-based interviewing technique to determine where students are positioned on a scale of substance use and abuse. They also receive training about available resources, so they can refer students appropriately. The hope is to divert users earlier in the cycle and diminish the impact of addiction.

"We're hoping if we're successful and we can show that it decreases the number of people who have substance use disorder, or decreases the number [who experience] overdose and death, then we'll be able to implement it and expand it throughout the northern Kentucky region," she says.

2. Data Analysis to Improve Health Outcomes and Reduce Costs

The Institute also collaborates with St. Elizabeth Healthcare on initiatives to improve outcomes and reduce costs.

"Since St. Elizabeth is a large healthcare system, they have amassed a lot of data, but they don't really have the bandwidth—and it's not really their job because they're not a research-based hospital system—to analyze all of these data," says Hardcastle. "As a university, we can help them do that [by examining] the data they've collected to provide better, more efficient, less costly ways of maintaining or improving health.

One initiative underway involves examining which diabetes drugs are best for certain patient profiles based on outcomes and Medicaid costs.

"We're hoping by doing this type of analysis, we will then be able to give a tool back to the doctors," says Hardcastle. The checklist will contain drug recommendations that "will save the hospital system money, save the state money, and will be better for the patients." 

The Institute also spurs innovation in other ways. One example is partnering with NKU's College of Informatics to design solutions that address healthcare needs. One project in progress is a natural language processing solution that translates descriptions of patients' conditions between electronic medical records.

3. Workforce Development

Kentucky has a "tremendous shortage of healthcare workers," says Hardcastle. "In particular, we have a shortage of primary care providers, and the Commonwealth of Kentucky is short 9,000 nurses."

The new facility will serve as a breeding ground to train new generations of healthcare workers, and the simulation center—with 48 beds and 85 mannequins—will become a place to train students about a multidisciplinary approach to medicine, enabling physicians, nurses, and allied health professionals to interact with each other as they would in a hospital setting.

"In order to be the most efficient and effective at providing healthcare," says Hardcastle, "everybody has to understand what everyone else does, and their roles in the system. That's a bit of healthcare education that I dare say, at least during my lifetime, has been a failure. I think we have a real opportunity to change that here through our simulation center and through the way we're trying to structure our programs as being multidisciplinary."

Additional highlights:

  • Next fall, The University of Kentucky College of Medicine will expand its MD program to the NKU campus with opportunities for residents and interns to practice at St. Elizabeth Healthcare
  • The new facilities provide the opportunity to double the number of nurses that the university graduates each year
  • Also planned is a PhD program in occupational therapy

Recognizing that career development begins at a much earlier age, the Institute also has programs to reach students as young a middle school, bringing them on campus for workshops or "camp-type" activities. "Many of our students are first generation, and sometimes believing that they can succeed at college is a barrier," says Hardcastle. These experiences are designed to open their minds to new possibilities.

Mandy Roth is the innovations editor at HealthLeaders.

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