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6 Paths to Innovation

By Mandy Roth  
   October 07, 2019

Executives at academic medical centers, multi-hospital systems, independent and critical access hospitals, and physician organizations outlined their approaches to innovation and strategies during the HealthLeaders CEO Exchange.

From helping to build a 330-acre innovation district in a North Carolina city, to a fostering a mindset that transformation can occur without additional funding or staff in rural Minnesota, healthcare leaders are igniting innovation initiatives at hospitals and health systems across the country.

We asked a variety of executives participating in the HealthLeaders CEO Exchange September 25-27 in Park City, Utah, to share their strategies and approaches with our readers. We received a diverse array of responses with one common thread: regardless of hospital size, location, or mission, each has a commitment to innovation. Following are strategies shared by six leaders:

1. Tertiary Care Academic Medical Center

Russell Howerton MD, FACS, is senior vice president, Wake Forest Health Network, and system chief medical officer of Wake Forest Baptist Health in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The integrated delivery system has five hospitals with 1,535 beds, is affiliated with the Wake Forest School of Medicine, and has its own innovation arm, Wake Forest Innovations.

"As an academic institution, we believe generating knowledge alone is not where we want to be. In addition to dissemination of knowledge, we want to move closer to the implementation of knowledge. We've invested resources in moving ideas beyond creation to the development of processes and products—to where they actually touch patients. We also help create financial fuel [to help this] happen. Over several decades in partnership with state, local, and federal entities, we have invested in downtown Winston-Salem to create a physical environment for innovation called the Wake Forest Innovation Quarter. It's several hundred acres that have been redeveloped in partnership with innovative private sector companies, as well as contributions from the Wake Forest Health System and School of Medicine."

2. Critical Access Hospital

Toby Freier is president of New Ulm Medical Center—Allina Health, New Ulm, Minnesota. The 35-bed hospital, with an additional 10-bed behavioral health unit has been named one of the Top 20 Critical Access Hospitals in the United States by The Chartis Center for Rural Health eight times in nine years. Freier has a three-step approach to innovation:

  • "Innovation shows up when there is a bold vision. If leaders don't have a bold vision, don't expect a whole lot of innovation from the team." For example, the Heart of New Ulm is a population health initiative aiming for zero heart attacks in the community. "When you have a bold vision like that," says Freier, "you can't just bring forth tweaks to the healthcare system or public health, or other interventions; it really requires transformational efforts."
  • "The second thing … is a mindset shift that you're already resource rich. A frustration for me is it seems like anytime we have a great idea, usually it's attached with three FTEs and $150,000— THEN we can do great things for our healthcare system. I think there's enough money, there's enough resources, but sometimes we're not challenging our leaders to think how could we solve this problem? How could we pursue this opportunity in an innovative way with what we already have?"
  • Finally, "There's a leadership competency we need to better develop across healthcare around data analytics. We've invested billions of dollars into electronic health records and data analytics software systems. Where I see a gap is leaders don't know what strategic questions to ask with all the data we have that could bring forth innovation. When we start to think about all the strategic challenges, problems, and opportunities facing our industry—whether it's in primary care delivery, specialty care, telehealth, or population health—there's so much we can do with our data to help inform our strategy, which then should improve our outcomes."

3. Independent Nonprofit Health System With Two Hospitals Totaling 562 Beds

Sue Anderson, MBA, is president of Virginia Mason Medical Center and executive vice president, Virginia Mason Health System, Seattle, Washington:

"We identified innovation as one of our pillars in 2000, and we have an outside chair of innovation who works with us. We have a definition—which is 'directed creativity, implemented'—because it's not just about having great ideas; you actually have to do something with them and make change in order to truly be innovative. We've also embedded innovation culturally into our organization through our Virginia Mason Production System, which is the Toyota Production System applied to healthcare, and we use many innovative techniques in our quality improvement efforts."

4. Regional Teaching Hospital With 325 Beds and Clinics in Three States

Scott Rathgaber, MD, is CEO of the 325-bed Gundersen Health System in La Crosse, Wisconsin.

“At Gundersen Health System, we have embraced innovation as an organizational value for years, resulting in projects and initiatives that have fueled our success and supported our strategy. While these ideas have been generated organically as part of an innovative culture, we worry about what ideas are lost because of lack of attention. We have recently begun to evaluate a more formal process of innovation generation to ensure that all improvement ideas receive a proper screening to mine the best opportunities that align with our strategic goals.”

5. Children's Hospital System in Two States

Larry Moss, MD, is president and CEO of Nemours Children's Health System headquartered in Jacksonville, Florida, which owns and operates two free-standing children’s hospitals in Delaware and Orlando, along with outpatient facilities in five states.

"Nemours is strongly committed to transforming the way we pay for healthcare in kids and we want our financial incentives to be aligned with the patients and families. We want to be paid for health rather than volume and complexity of disease. So baked into our ability to do that is our ability to see patients efficiently where they live in a way that's cost effective, both for them and us. That's why our digital strategy is so important and why our telehealth programs have grown so rapidly."

6. Multi-Specialty Physician Group

Larry Tatum, MD, is CEO of the North Texas region of Privia Medical Group, a physician-led, multi-specialty medical group of independent physicians.

"The vast majority of care is still delivered in small offices and small care settings. Our attempt is to bring an organized, sophisticated care management system to the backside of [physicians'] offices, allow them to practice in their care site, and move forward into a value-based world." Regarding innovation, "We're using just about everything you hear about to accomplish this goal. The ability to extract data from the [electronic health record] is important and maybe, more important, is the ability to drive data back into the site of care. We talk a lot these days about new front doors in care and we're addressing all the issues that are popular: portals, online scheduling, telehealth, and other methods of communication such as texting that are handy for patients and allow them to be taken care of in a timely fashion. Frankly, it's also timely and handy for staff so they can spend their days taking care of the folks who need them."

Related: Pursuing Scale Through M&A? You Still Need a Local-Market Mindset

Related: Big Innovation Ideas for Smaller Hospitals

Related: 3 Leaders Offer 3 Approaches to Healthcare Innovation

Related: 3 Insights on How CEOs Approach Their Critical Choices

The HealthLeaders CEO Exchange annually gathers leading hospital and health system CEOs for a custom dialogue on only the critical issues facing the future of their organizations. For more information, please email

Mandy Roth is the innovations editor at HealthLeaders.

Photo credit: HealthLeaders/David Hartig


Virginia Mason uses an outside chair of innovation and processes based on the Toyota Production System.

A digital strategy and telehealth are crucial to innovation initiatives at Nemours Children's Health System, which is focused on transforming the way healthcare is financed.

Aiming for zero heart attacks is the aim of a community-based innovation program at New Ulm Medical Center‒Allina Health.

Wake Forest has its own innovation arm and has helped fund a massive innovation district in downtown Winston-Salem.

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