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Geisinger's Karen Murphy Stimulates Innovation by Focusing on Fundamentally Different Approaches to Healthcare

Analysis  |  By Mandy Roth  
   June 08, 2020

With a career that began in nursing, this leader used her bedside experience to inspire innovation at a federal and state level and is now focused on transforming healthcare though Geisinger's Steele Institute for Health Innovation.

This article appears in the May/June 2020 edition of HealthLeaders magazine.

Karen Murphy, PhD, RN, started her career at the bedside. Today, as chief innovation officer for The Steele Institute for Health Innovation at Geisinger, a 13-hospital health system in Pennsylvania, she leads a 210-person team that's working to transform healthcare.

Between those two professional bookends, Murphy served as Pennsylvania's secretary of health from 2015 to 2017; director of the State Innovation Model Initiative for the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation, leading a $990 million investment designed to accelerate health care innovation across the United States; and president and CEO of Moses Taylor Health System (now Commonwealth Health); among other positions.

"Of all the wonderful learning experiences that I've had, the most important was when I was a critical care nurse and was able to gain an understanding of all aspects of the healthcare delivery system from the ground up," says Murphy. "The experience provided [insight into] how important it is for us to keep our focus on the work we do on a daily basis with patients and patients' families when they're at their most vulnerable."

Murphy says she also "cherishes" the nearly five years she spent in public service working with "inspirational" individuals. "I've worked with people who were incredibly dedicated and wanted to make a difference to improve healthcare," she says. "They recognized that it's really hard to do when you're operating at the same time you're trying to innovate."

She views each job as a stepping stone that prepared her for the Geisinger role she assumed in 2017, just before the organization launched the Institute to further expand its tradition of innovation.

Based in Danville, Pennsylvania, Geisinger is an integrated healthcare system that includes—beyond its 13 hospital campuses—two research centers, the Geisinger Commonwealth School of Medicine, and a health plan that serves approximately 600,000 members. More than 30,000 employees, 2,500 providers, and scores of residents, fellows, and medical students in the system provide care for 3 million residents in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

Although the discipline of innovation is fairly new to the world of healthcare, The Steele Institute has a robust and multidimensional program that encompasses technology and social determinants of health, says Murphy. She also serves as executive vice president of Geisinger and founding director of the Steele Institute, and speaks nationally about healthcare policy and innovation.

Related: Geisinger Seeks Opportunities to Accelerate Healthcare Transformation Through COVID-19 Response

Following are highlights from Murphy's conversation with HealthLeaders.

"As chief innovation officer, I'm focused on developing fundamentally different approaches to healthcare. That's how we define innovation: a fundamentally different approach to solving a problem that has quantifiable outcomes."

"[At Geisinger,] our approach to innovation is disciplined and focused. [We don't] find a solution and then try to find a problem [it addresses]. We only solve problems; if it's not a problem, we don't work on it. We don't do innovation for innovation's sake. We're … supportive of the entire enterprise, and we're here to solve problems that we're experiencing in the healthcare delivery system."

"We currently have 210 people at the Institute. Of that number, most are in our unified data architecture shop within the Steele Institute. We are up to about 40 people now on the innovation side."

"We have people focused on the health pillar, which is innovative approaches to population health and social determinants. Then we have a group that's dedicated to healthcare delivery and payment transformation. We are responsible for the organization's digital strategy. We have a team using robotic process automation—an intelligent automation hub—that focuses their work on that. We have a product innovation team that develops and supports design thinking and product innovation across the enterprise. And we also have the behavioral economics unit that studies nudge theory and guiding people to better decisions. We also have an artificial intelligence arm."

"We're funded from general operations. We also codevelop applications and partner to generate revenue through the Steele Institute. We try to develop innovations that are not 'Geisingerized.' In other words, we try to develop innovations that can be spread throughout the industry. If we're building new software, or an app, or whatever technology we're leveraging, we try to develop it in a way it can be externalized and generalizable across the country."

"The evidence is clear that just addressing health with healthcare alone is not effective. Your ZIP code is really even more important than your genetic code. We have been very focused and dedicated in addressing social determinants of health across our markets. That's number one. Number two, we also recognize that we have to help our vulnerable populations, which have much higher social needs. So that work is a priority for us. It's really about our obligation to address all community needs that impact health."

"I do think technology has been the missing link to transform healthcare delivery. The healthcare industry has always leveraged technology in diagnostics, and certainly from a scientific standpoint, but we have not digitalized a lot of our consumer relations [or] a lot of our business processes. Digital applications really provide us with a great opportunity."

"Among our success stories is the Fresh Food Farmacy. [The program offers education, support, and access to fresh food to help patients to better manage their diabetes.] We traditionally had a bricks and mortar approach, and over the last year we built a digital approach to Fresh Food Farmacy that we hope we'll be able to spread. We also developed a strong artificial intelligence arm of the organization with strategies and AI solutions that have been very successful. We also look to our intelligent automation hub to [address] business challenges and lower costs. Then we're developing a chronic disease management command center, which is a new outpatient approach to managing chronic diseases."

"One of the misconceptions about innovation is that you see quick results. We have found that just isn't the case. We evaluate everything we do. We have metrics attached to everything we do. Our definition [of innovation] includes quantifiable outcomes. For true innovation to see a broad-spread impact takes time. We'll only be two years old in July. For so many of the early initiatives, it's going to take us a while to really see the fruits of that labor."

"Innovation is really hard to do. There is a reason why it hasn't gone like wildfire throughout the healthcare industry. I encourage other health leaders to recognize that and to recognize that everything you try to do is not guaranteed success. I also urge tolerance for innovation. It's tough to do truly meaningful work, but it's something that we have to do. We're not going to be able to continue to see our way forward if we don't take fundamentally different approaches to the way we deliver healthcare."

“One of the misconceptions about innovation is that you see quick results.”

Mandy Roth is the innovations editor at HealthLeaders.

Photo credit: (Pictured above: Karen Murphy, PhD, RN, Chief Innovation Officer, The Steele Institute for Health Innovation, Geisinger. Photo courtesy of Geisinger.)


Pennsylvania's former secretary of health says her background in nursing and public service helped prepare her for her current role.

Geisinger's innovation initiatives include new approaches to population health and social determinants of health, as well as healthcare delivery and payment transformation.

Digital strategies, robotic process automation, and artificial intelligence are also essential components of the health system's innovation efforts.

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