AVIA CEO Linda Finkel; Providence Chief Strategy and Digital Officer Sara Vaezy; Sutter Health Chief Design and Innovation Officer Chris Waugh; Northwell Health Chief of Innovation and Transformation Rebecca Kaul; and Houston Methodist Vice President of Innovation and IT Applications Michelle Stansbury discuss the function of innovation centers at ViVE 2024.

Feb 28 2024

ViVE 2024: Health Systems Take Innovation into Their Own Hands

Some organizations are setting up innovation centers to create and implement solutions that solve problems with technology, people and processes.

Innovation is vital for health systems as they seek to improve patient outcomes and experiences, mitigate clinician burnout and address health equity. Innovation teams can even help organizations tackle revenue diversification.

“Innovation is not just vital but absolutely existential,” said AVIA CEO Linda Finkel, who moderated a session on “Health Systems’ Big Bet on Innovation” at ViVE 2024 in Los Angeles.

Some health systems are taking innovation into their own hands by creating dedicated teams to help solve problems. Members of some of those teams across the nation came together at ViVE to discuss what their innovation centers do and how they work.

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What Do Innovation Centers Do for Healthcare Organizations?

At Providence, the innovation center doesn’t own innovation across the entire system. Rather, it focuses on digital innovation, said Sara Vaezy, executive vice president and chief strategy and digital officer. The center’s purpose is to address problems that have durability within the system but have not yet been solved.

“We go through an innovation process to identify and get really crisp on the problem. We’re not going high-level, like access or engagement. We’re getting very specific on the problem,” said Vaezy.

Once her team has prioritized problems, it goes through a systematic build/buy analysis beyond the feature-or-functionality level. The team also asks several questions: Does the business model match what the team is trying to accomplish? Is it flexible enough to grow into? What are the health of the companies being considered? Providence looks at its core partners as a starting point.

“Innovation isn’t just about creating or building. It’s really about a creative way of solving a problem,” Vaezy explained. “If we can’t find another solution, we will build, but we have a specific thesis around building.”

Building requires people, time and money to solve the problem, she said. Providence only builds when it has no other options.

Chris Waugh, vice president and chief design and innovation officer at Sutter Health, said being in a health system is an “unfair advantage” in innovation because the organization has a front-row seat to 3 million patients and 10,000 doctors. Innovation leaders can pick up meaningful insights around what needs to be done directly from the source. Having that direct access is key in the system’s ability to move quickly, Waugh said.

READ MORE: Healthcare embraces AI as industry leaders seek support for clinicians.

His team puts a major emphasis on design that goes beyond implementing a solution but also considers the experience architecture the organization is trying to create. Design can lead to breaking the rules of the traditional system and reinventing care models through disruptive solutions.

According to Rebecca Kaul, senior vice president and chief of digital innovation and transformation at Northwell Health, designing, defining or building an innovation center will change depending on the needs, culture and readiness of an organization, in addition to timing.

At Northwell, Kaul said, one of the biggest problems is that there are so many innovators in the organization — and so many problems to be solved — that the question becomes how to activate those innovators across the health system. Supporting all of those innovators across the ecosystem by accelerating the ability to set up environments, access data and access language models is a major focus for the innovation center, creating an ecosystem where people can share different AI language models to solve for problems in a safe environment.

Kaul emphasized the importance of working with partners and those in the industry to solve for problems, and doing design exercises to explore what the experience of the future will look like and what capabilities will be needed. Those capabilities can’t be focused solely on technology because, Kaul said, “putting great technology into a bad process is going to fail.”

At Houston Methodist, the health system approaches innovation with key operational and IT leaders working together cohesively, said Michelle Stansbury, vice president of innovation and IT applications. The benefit of that approach is that the team can scale solutions quickly across the organization without having to convince management to go along with the innovation.

Sara Vaezy
Innovation isn’t just about creating or building. It’s really about a creative way of solving a problem.”

Sara Vaezy EVP, Chief Strategy and Digital Officer, Providence

Setting Up Innovation Centers for Success in Healthcare

Strong collaboration with end users is key to innovation. Waugh said the team at Sutter knows who is most interested in innovation, and partners with them.

“We are never out of sync with a potential operator,” he said.

He recommended that innovation leaders stay in lockstep with their end users and operating leads; this includes listening to their needs before searching for a technology solution. The innovation group creates relationships with Sutter’s medical groups and builds central delivery functions that will help them. The innovation center owns those solutions until they are mature.

Vaezy agreed that involving clinicians from the beginning is crucial for innovation success.

“There’s a difference between engaging clinicians and partnering with clinicians. Historically, we’ve made the error of engaging with them after the fact or trying to get them on board,” she said. “It’s not about getting them on board, it’s about working with them to develop.”

The idea of people pitching ideas from the outside and trying to push them in is a losing proposition, Kaul explained. Instead, the organization should start with its priority problems. This means clinicians and relevant stakeholders need to be part of the process.

“Ownership lies with the clinician or relevant stakeholder. They are driving the solution to the problem. They are accountable, and the innovation center is helping them be accountable by offering different ways to solve the problem,” she said. She added that stakeholders on the ground are even more instrumental than leadership. “Leadership helps with guardrails and support, but the innovation is grassroots until we know we have something. That’s when there’s an inflection point of change, and we can start moving it into a broader-scale rollup.”

DISCOVER: How application optimization can improve healthcare.

Having operational leadership as an innovation stakeholder can make a big difference in an organization’s ability to scale. Stansbury explained that Houston Methodist’s chief innovation officer is also the CEO of the system’s largest hospital, which has about 1,700 beds. In this role, the chief innovation officer can scale in the hospital quickly, and the innovation team can learn from that.

Vaezy emphasized the need to align innovation with where the team has operating responsibility to ensure success.

If a health system wants to make change happen fast, Waugh suggested finding the biggest pain point where the system is hemorrhaging or an area in which the system isn’t acting in any capacity, and start there.

“Having a greenfield there to build solutions for things the system isn’t doing means you can move faster because you’re growing your own engine really quickly,” he said.

Kaul said the innovation team at Northwell is open to meaningful collaboration and partnership, but she warned vendors that while a solution might be great, it may not be the right time or the right problem for the health system to solve in terms of priorities.

The organizations represented in the ViVE session are placing big bets on technologies and solutions such as generative AI and large language models, smart hospitals and patient rooms, personalized care, workflow optimization and remote monitoring.

“For anyone who doubts how innovative health systems are today, I hope this session has dispelled that notion,” said Finkel.

Keep this page bookmarked for our ongoing coverage of ViVE 2024. Follow us on X (formerly Twitter) at @HealthTechMag and join the conversation at #ViVE2024.

Photography by Jordan Scott

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