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9 Innovation Strategies That May Not Cost You a Penny

Analysis  |  By Mandy Roth  
   December 10, 2019

Leaders share approaches to help health systems shape innovation in ways that have minimal impact on the bottom line.

Innovation doesn't necessarily require investments in expensive ventures. It can begin with strategies that help health systems think and operate differently and to save a buck.

With tight budgets and a need to innovate, how are health system leaders transforming their organizations? This year HealthLeaders spoke with dozens of CEOs, CIOs, and innovation executives about the distinctive ways they approach innovation. Nestled among their responses were ideas that don't necessarily cost money to initiate. Here's a look at nine innovation strategies healthcare leaders offered for consideration.

1. Try to Innovate Without Tapping New Resources

To maximize minimal resources, Toby Freier, MBA, FACHE, president of New Ulm Medical Center—Allina Health in New Ulm, Minnesota, suggests promoting the mindset that you're already resource rich. "It seems like anytime we have a great idea," says Freier, "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?' "

Related: 6 Paths to Innovation

2. Collaborate With Other Health Systems 

While it could cost very little or nothing to simply bring other health systems into the fold to evaluate opportunities, determine whether they are worthy of investment, and position innovations to scale, the payoff—in terms of collaboration—could be significant. Eyal Zimlichman, MD, MSc, deputy director, chief medical officer, and chief innovation officer at Sheba Medical Center at Tel HaShomer, Israel, and the creator behind Sheba's ARC Innovation Center, collaborates with numerous high-profile health systems in the U.S. to bring Israeli innovations to life. Yet in his work with these organizations, he sees little collaboration between them. "That is something we can learn from other industries—to work together to build those groundbreaking solutions," he says. "If we want to redesign healthcare, we have to work together."

George Hamilton, MBA, managing director and partner at Intermountain Ventures agrees that there is power in collaboration because health systems share common challenges. His organization operates separately from Intermountain Healthcare as the innovation and venture investment arm of the Salt Lake City–based health system. "If we collectively like [a solution] that's solving a problem we share, and we each adopt it, it helps the company and the solution scale much more quickly. [If multiple health systems] adopt the company's technology, you've made the market for that opportunity, and you've created a great solution for healthcare."

Related: How Israel Does Healthcare Innovation; An Insider's Look for Americans

Related: How a Separate Venture Company Spurs Intermountain's Innovations

3. Build Rapport With Clinical Service Lines

Here's another idea that may not cost a nickel: To accelerate innovation, it is essential to forge relationships with the clinicians who will be involved in testing and scaling a solution, says Eric Kirkendall, MD, MBI, deputy director of the Wake Forest Center for Healthcare Innovation in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and director of digital health innovation at Wake Forest Baptist Health. "Without building rapport," says Kirkendall, "you can't just walk onto a hospital floor and roll out an initiative. First and foremost, you must have good collaborative relationships with your service lines." The Center helps forge those relationships by encouraging clinical personnel to become volunteer members of its innovation team.

Related: Innovate Faster: Wake Forest Tells Us How

4. Fall Out of Love With Technology

Focusing on the challenge before investing in a solution could save an organization from a hasty and costly investment. "Technology is not everything," says Sameer Badlani, MD, FACP, chief information officer at Fairview Health Services in Minneapolis. "Change management, people management, and understanding the opportunity plays into the success of any technology out there." Shifting the focus from the solution to the problem expands the scope of possibilities, he says.

"I refuse to fall in love with the technology," says Badlani. "I would rather be obsessed with problems because the solution will keep changing based on what is available, what kind of people you have to work with, and what kind of process refinement you have to do."

The executive director of Ariadne Labs in Boston has a similar belief. Asaf Bitton, MD, MPH, who is also a Harvard professor and Brigham and Women's Hospital primary care physician, says, "We too often get distracted by the lure of technology, [although] it justifiably has its place. We have to think about innovation not only as a search to produce new technologies or medical treatments. Innovation is also desperately needed to build more reliable, safe, and patient-centered experiences to improve outcomes."

Related: Physician CIO: 'I Refuse to Fall in Love with Technology'

Related: How Would Ariadne Labs' New Leader Change Healthcare?

5. Make Operations, IT, and Security Teams Part of the Conversation

In the long run, you could save money and time by expanding the conversation within your own organization early in the innovation process. Rich Roth, MHA, chief strategic innovation officer at CommonSpirit Health, cautions health system innovators to bring operating leaders into the process during the early stages. "Don't divorce your innovation initiatives from operations," he says. "You can't create artificial environments because artificial environments ultimately don't work for you or [your] partners. It is easy to get a pilot in, but it's hard to sustain and to scale." By the same token, that also means including the IT department, as well as privacy and security teams, to safeguard data and patient privacy. "You have to do the hard work at the front to have them engaged, supportive, and along for this transformation."

Related: 6 Ways to Hone Your Innovation Approach

6. Address the Need to Reduce Labor Costs

Want to save money? Health systems should focus on initiatives designed to lower costs, says one executive. "I feel that innovation in our field is missing the mark because so far I'm not seeing very many innovative ideas or changes that really reduce the cost of healthcare and especially reduce the labor side of healthcare, which, to me, is amongst the biggest challenges," says Kim Russel, president and CEO of Bryan Health based in Lincoln, Nebraska. "A lot of the innovation coming into our field seems to add costs and add people. I would hope that companies and others who are working on innovation are looking for ways to take costs out and reduce on the labor side."

Related: 3 Leaders; 3 Approaches to Innovation

7. Don't Spend a Dime; Practice Watchful Waiting

A disciplined approach to innovation results in better outcomes to improve the patient and caregiver experience, says Ellen Wiegand, MBA, vice president and chief information officer of Seattle-based Virginia Mason Health System. While most organizations are eager to forge ahead, sometimes it's important to exercise caution, she says, particularly if data and patient privacy are at risk. To wit: The recent controversy over Project Nightingale, a collaboration between Google and Ascension.

"A big challenge is balancing the need for innovation with the need to have safe, effective, proven technology, says Wiegand. "[Our job is to] help the organization recognize when to take the lead with a new technology and when to watchfully wait and see where the evidence points. To that end, Virginia Mason has chosen not to move its data onto the cloud. "At this point, we feel like we just don't have a good, safe way to move all of our clinical data out there, so we've chosen not to do that. Sometimes we just have to take a step back and say, 'No, now's not the right time,' and we can meet some of the needs with some alternate technologies."

Related: IT Innovation Lessons From Virginia Mason CIO: Strategy, Watchful Waiting Deliver Long-Term Value

8. Engage Employees to Help Transform Your Organization

Another low-cost strategy involves corralling the energy of your employees. "Transformation is about your entire organization being engaged," says Joseph F. Scott, FACHE, executive vice president of health care transformation at RWJBarnabas Health. "I can't stress enough how important that engagement piece is and to communicate in a way that's meaningful for frontline staff."

As his health system moves toward value-based care, he says it is essential for every employee to understand the role social determinants of health play in this new approach to care. "I believe the only way we are truly going to focus on social determinants of health is when we're fully at risk in a value-based contract. That's when it will become important for us to settle issues like transportation, housing, and food insecurity because that will drive the overall cost of care. Until we're in a full-risk contract, it will be more difficult. But having people understand why those social determinants are so important as we move to value also becomes a great way of engaging our employees around what we're trying to accomplish."

Related: How RWJBarnabas Health is Using Innovation to Transform to a Value-Based World

9. Find a New Way to Tell Your Story

Talk is cheap, yet words can be a powerful way to pave the way for innovation. "The way you [transform an organization], No. 1, is to change the story," says Ann Mond Johnson, MBA, MHA, CEO of ATA, the telehealth association. For her organization, that means focusing on the potential impact of telehealth, rather than the technology. At a Capitol Hill briefing, for example, rather than having delivery systems, payers, and vendors talk about their solutions, "we focused on patients talking about their stories and providers talking about what a difference they were able to make in people's lives because they were able to use the technology. If you change the story," says Mond Johnson, "it makes it easier for people to collaborate and partner."

Related: ATA CEO Targets Innovation to Move Telehealth Forward

Mandy Roth is the innovations editor at HealthLeaders.

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