9 hospital execs share how their innovation approach evolved since the start of the pandemic

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Hospitals' innovation efforts were forced to accelerate and refocus because of the pandemic's demand for more virtual care options and increased attention to social determinants of health.

Below, eight executives from hospitals and health systems across the country discuss how their innovation programs have changed and stayed the same in the year since the pandemic hit.

Editor's note: Responses have been edited lightly for clarity and style.

Claus Torp Jensen, PhD. Chief Digital Officer at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (New York City). Our overall innovation focus throughout the pandemic has generally remained unchanged. Our guiding light has always been to provide the best possible care to our cancer patients and to continue to drive new discoveries through cancer research. However, what did change during the pandemic is how we do this.

Our clinical teams have rapidly created and deployed innovative ways of providing care in a world that has been partially shut down. As we move into 2021 we are focused on creating the right tools for both care teams and patients so that we can deliver Memorial Sloan Kettering’s integrated care in a hybrid setting, where elements include inpatient and outpatient services and increasingly more care from home. This is not just about doing a telemedicine visit. Instead, we are coming up with innovative ways of connecting the dots between different care settings, and developing technology solutions to seamlessly support them.

On the research side, unifying our data is foundational to unlocking new insight. We are also deploying new collaboration tools that are made for a flexible work setting, inside and outside Memorial Sloan Kettering. And researchers are increasingly using digital models to augment understanding of biological processes.

What has very much stayed the same for everyone at Memorial Sloan Kettering is the dedication to curing cancer. This is the bedrock upon which everything else rests.

Richard Zane, MD. Chief Innovation Officer at UCHealth (Aurora, Colo.). One of the key strategic pillars of UCHealth is innovation. That was true before the coronavirus pandemic and has been reaffirmed and emphasized during the pandemic. Being an organization that values innovation and has the tenacity and culture to embrace change and learn from failure is a defining characteristic that has most assuredly proven important in response to and throughout the pandemic. 

From being able to rapidly deploy intelligence and clinical decision support to providers within their electronic workflow, which was able to be modified, often hourly, as diagnostic and treatment guidelines changed, to having the ability to seamlessly scale virtual health 10,000 percent and execute home remote patient monitoring for COVID-19, build a best-in-class COVID-19 testing program and execute the most ambitious vaccination imitative in the U.S. was all possible because UCHealth defines itself as an innovative learning system.

Nick Patel, MD. Chief Digital Officer at Prisma Health (Columbia, S.C.). We had to pivot quickly to tackle the COVID 19 challenges head on. We lessened the blow by ramping up telehealth visits very early on. We wanted to maintain continuity of care by virtual visits with our patients. We didn’t want patients' chronic disease states to exacerbate and end up in the emergency room. We initially focused on our patients with significant comorbidities that put them at higher risk of death if they contracted COVID19. We took into consideration those aspects of the social determinants of health that are usually overlooked like technology literacy, access of hardware and broadband as we rolled out this initiative. 

We were able to operationalize our virtual health contingency plan in about one week. As of March 16, we have done over 600,000 virtual visits at Prisma Health. This required IT, informatics and our digital health department to work quickly to deploy our current digital assets and also purchase certain hardware like webcams, speakers, mics, and increase our network bandwidth. It was very well received by our patients and community. The payers also stepped up and removed all the previous barriers to virtual visits and greatly improved reimbursement for non face-to-face visits. We all hope these virtual health regulatory and reimbursement changes remain in the post-COVID world. Our consumers expect it.

The adoption of virtual health has been extraordinary. It has been amazing to see how it has helped efficiency for our providers and removed barriers to access for our patients. We still have to deal with the complexities of billing and coding requirements, which sometimes cause "note bloat," but with time-based billing changes that is improving. Integrations and setting forth a seamless experience are continued challenges but vendors and EHRs are becoming more consumer-centric.

Omkar Kulkarni. Chief Innovation Officer at Children's Hospital Los Angeles. Children’s Hospital Los Angeles has long focused on ensuring equitable access to high quality pediatric care. The pandemic forced much of care delivery to be facilitated through smartphones, computers and connected devices. This shift toward virtual care and digital patient engagement has exposed a new fault line in our works toward equitable access: a digital divide. 

Many of our families don’t have the tools, connectivity or skills to engage and actively participate in virtual healthcare delivery. As such, many of our innovation efforts have been and will continue to focus on bridging this digital divide and ensuring that all patients in our community can access the great care at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, whether in-person or virtually.

Kathy Azeez-Narain. Chief Digital Officer at Hoag Hospital (Newport Beach, Calif.). We have doubled down on what healthcare needs to become to support the new expectations that people have, with a focus on digital and more importantly human-centered experiences. 

Technology for the sake of having all the systems you need is no longer enough. We have spent more time on identifying the key problems we have to solve for the patient/provider/consumer and overlaid a deep focus on where digital/innovation plays a role. We want to pursue the ideas that will improve healthcare, not just focus on implementing what already exists in the industry. Our commitment to providing our community with digitally accessible health tools, platforms and care deepened and will continue to be paired with our customer centric mindset and best-in-class providers and facilities. 

Tom Andriola. Vice Chancellor of IT and data at UC Irvine. Our innovation focus has accelerated, as I'm sure most would say. The accelerated pace of innovation shifted our priorities first to look at continuity issues such as scaling our ability to do virtual visits. But the surges forced us to look beyond that and get creative to design new models that we are now making a part of our delivery model permanently, like Connected Care and Hospital@Home models. While the pandemic has been a struggle for us all, the silver lining is we are coming out the other side as a more digitally-powered care organization.

Jolynn Suko. Senior Vice President and Chief Innovation Officer at Parkview Health (Fort Wayne, Ind.). While the COVID-19 pandemic shifted our innovation efforts, our overall focus on emerging health technology, data science, virtual health and social determinants of health have remained the same. During the midst of the pandemic, we rose to the occasion to support out-of-the box thinking, and our efforts were accelerated because of the challenges that needed to be tackled.  

Early on, our simulation lab team developed ventilator and personal protective equipment prototypes with engineers from our medical staff and local universities. Our health services and informatics research team created a hyper local, predictive COVID-19 patient hospitalization model to forecast resource needs across the organization, which was invaluable during November's surge. Our innovation program focused on novel health interventions to mitigate infant mortality in northeast Indiana, knowing that the health disparities revealed by the pandemic would worsen existing public health challenges. Our virtual health team was already poised to deliver video visits via Epic, but we ramped up our capabilities and went from delivering 6,000 virtual visits in 2019 to more than 122,000 in 2020.  

One year later, we are leveraging all that we've learned. We are applying our new knowledge to create solutions to other areas of our health system. For example, our health services and informatics research group are now tackling operational challenges, such as surgical flow, using the same modeling techniques used to predict resource needs during the COVID-19 surge. As video visits have become a new normal, we are focused on seamless execution. We are also looking at how we keep patients in the best setting for care, knowing that may be at home. Our innovation program continues to work with promising startups developing solutions to address disparities in health. We are currently supporting four promising startups with solutions that address safe sleep, maternal mental health, infant jaundice and in-home testing for specific conditions.    

The biggest change with the pandemic was not necessarily our focus, but the pace of execution. We are hopeful this new pace will accelerate our contributions to solving some of northeast Indiana’s biggest healthcare challenges.  

Dave Murray. Chief Compliance, Privacy and Risk Management Officer at Summit Healthcare Regional Medical Center (Show Low, Ariz.). Summit Healthcare Regional Medical Center had already headed down the path of innovation prior to the pandemic, with significant campus infrastructure expansion as well as regional outreach inclusive of technology.  

With the onset of the pandemic and its impact on our resources as well as our population, our team quick-stepped implementation of virtual visits across all our physician practices and stood up a COVID-19-at-home program to manage cases in the home setting given the shortage of beds locally and statewide. We partnered with our county health department to develop and implement COVID-19 testing as well as a COVID-19 vaccination program. We also partnered with our state hospital and health care association (AzHHA) to coordinate, apply for, and achieve waivers for operations at the state and federal level.  

While we've always had close relationships with our county (Navajo) and our state level partners, we became even closer in our collaborative efforts to serve our population, and we anticipate that same close collaboration once the pandemic subsides.

As for what has stayed the same, this organization's drive to continually innovate new ways to bring sophisticated healthcare to the region we serve. I know that sounds a little like a marketing cliche, but that's what drew me to this organization just two years ago.

Daniel Durand, MD. Chief Innovation Officer at LifeBridge Health (Baltimore). As many observers in the industry have noted, the pandemic has been like a “fast-forward” button for the history of healthcare with regard to digital health and consumerism. It has very clearly validated the legitimacy of care delivery through telehealth, mobile patient engagement, remote patient monitoring and sometimes even AI.  But the 12 plus months of unrelenting stress and fatigue has also reminded us that healthcare workers may be heroic, but they are not comic book super-heroes — they are ultimately human and vulnerable to burnout.  As a result, we now have more innovation initiatives than ever that are focused on ensuring the health, wellbeing and resilience of the healthcare workforce.

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