The executive vice president and chief information & innovation officer at Children's Hospital & Medical Center is committed to an innovation strategy that will keep the Omaha-based hospital on the cutting edge of children's care.
Healthcare innovation might seem like a slow and steady process, marked by methodical pilots that gather data and lead to system-wide adoption.
Jerry Vuchak would like you to know that isn't the case in pediatric care.
"We frequently want to go faster than [technology vendors] want to go," says the executive vice president and chief information & innovation officer at the Omaha, Nebraska–based Children's Hospital & Medical Center. "We're moving forward at a pace that they're not used to."
There's a reason for that. Roughly $22 billion was raised globally in 2020 for digital health innovation, according to StartUp Health's annual report, yet only $167 million, or less than 1%, was set aside for children's digital health. And a quick online search of "children's hospitals" and "healthcare innovation" finds that many of the 250 or so children's hospitals in the U.S. are actively trying to raise funds that they aren't getting from the National Institutes of Health or other resources.
Whatever the reason for this lack of representation, Vuchak is quick to point out that innovation is alive and well at Children's Hospital & Medical Center. That's because so many care pathways and treatments for children can be made better.
Consider, for example, alarms within the hospital. They're vital to alerting care teams when patients are in distress, yet in children's hospitals they can also be distressing to patients, many of whom are scared to be in a hospital. With that in mind, Vuchak, says, Children's is working on designing new alarms that can alert providers without adding to a patient's discomfort.
Jerry Vuchak, executive vice president and chief information & innovation officer at Children's Hospital & Medical Center. Photo courtesy Children's Hospital & Medical Center.
"Innovation is our first value," he points out. "And it's not just words on a page. We're always thinking about how we can do things better because it's in our culture. It has a huge impact on our patients and their families."
Vuchak's view is shared by many innovation executives at pediatric hospitals across the country. Because so much of the activity in healthcare innovation is geared toward the adult patient, pediatric-based health systems are forging their own paths, creating innovative tools and strategies that apply directly to their young and fragile patients and their families.
This, in turn, makes pediatric healthcare innovation a dynamic arena.
"It's much harder in the pediatric environment," Vuchak says, noting the hospital has even had to build pediatric content into its EHR platform. "But that also makes it much more rewarding."
In many cases, children in pediatric hospitals and their parents are eager to embrace innovation. That's seen in Children's Hospital & Medical Center's digital front door. While national estimates place the number of patients using digital health tools to access care at between 30% and 40%, Vuchak says more than 70% of their patients are digitally active.
"Consumer engagement and experience is [a key factor to] our digital front door strategy," he says. "So it's very important to us that we know if we're thinking about the right things. That's how we'll build our roadmap out beyond 2023."
This roadmap includes mobile health apps that give care providers access to the latest information on chronic diseases like asthma, as well as up-to-date information on the patient, including medications and other treatments; and remote patient monitoring programs that ease the transition from the hospital to the home. One such program focused on young children who've had heart surgery within their first six months. The program boosted clinical outcomes 10%–20% by giving providers access to data that enabled them to intervene more quickly when a patient started trending downwards.
"We're prioritizing access to services," Vuchak says, meaning both how patients and their families can access healthcare and how providers can access resources to improve care. "We have a strategy council, and we have more ideas than we can actually take on."
Aside from augmented and virtual reality, in which Vuchak says "we're just scratching the surface," Children's Hospital & Medical Center is exploring how AI can be integrated into both provider workflows and care programs, and how wearables might be used in pediatric care—a challenge, again, because so many wearables are designed for adults.
Vuchak says he's surprised that so many companies in the healthcare technology space don't have a good innovation strategy. That's why he'll look far and wide for partners that have the right philosophy, and who will pivot quickly and adjust to meet specific and important patient needs.
As with all areas of healthcare innovation, the pandemic was a driving force in the adoption of new ideas and technologies, especially virtual care. For Children's Hospital & Medical Center, there was another unexpected benefit: the shift to working from home opened up 10,000 square feet of space within the health system, which is now being turned into a center for innovation.
This, he says, will help Children's to develop tools and platforms that address not only the patient, but the surrounding support team, including family, friends, and providers. It will also help as the hospital dives into the challenges around social drivers of health and the myriad causes of health inequity and outcomes, which healthcare organizations are now finding ways to address.
"You don't want to slow down because there's so much that can be done," Vuchak says. And that's both an important skillset and a challenge to working in pediatric healthcare.
“Innovation is ... not just words on a page. We're always thinking about how we can do things better because it's in our culture. It has a huge impact on our patients and their families.”
— Jerry Vuchak, executive vice president and chief information & innovation officer, Children's Hospital & Medical Center.
Eric Wicklund is the associate content manager and senior editor for Innovation, Technology, Telehealth, Supply Chain and Pharma for HealthLeaders.
Jerry Vuchak has been directing innovation strategy at Children's Hospital & Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska, since March 2019. Prior to that he spent 15 years at Houston Methodist, where he served almost four years as vice president and CIO.
Vuchak says innovation is more challenging in the pediatric healthcare space because tech companies are focused on adult care and many aren't capable of pivoting quickly.
He says innovation strategy has to focus on the patients and their families, and an important aspect of that is listening to and understanding what they want and need out of healthcare.