10 hospital innovation execs on how their role has evolved during the pandemic

When the pandemic emerged, hospitals realized digital innovation strategy was no longer a nice-to-have, but rather a must-have. Below, 10 innovation leaders from hospitals and health systems across the country share how their role has evolved since the pandemic began.

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

Thomas Graham, MD. Chief Innovation and Transformation Officer at Kettering (Ohio) Health. In my Becker's article "Innovation in the time of coronavirus," I emphasized the critical role innovation would play in addressing the threats associated with the pandemic. I found myself defending the practice of putting ideas to work, despite the inherent challenges that have always been associated with innovation-at-scale. 

To address the inquiry at hand, I'll pick the two biggest "recalibrations" to my approach to how and why we innovate. 

The first is agility and velocity. Innovation has always been a nonlinear, long-to-success endeavor. Perhaps it's because it seemed like the unmet needs we were serving were either incremental advancements or "solving for tomorrow's problem." When the threat is so immediate, you must shift your frame of reference, and resource allocation to direct as much heft to solving big problems, for large populations faster and more economically. The power of partnerships, even with traditional competitors, was emphasized, especially for its ability to accelerate innovation. 

The second is innovation for caregivers. Our respective and collective calling is to heal the sick. Suddenly, we found that our innovation apparatus and bandwidth needed to be bifurcated to include protecting our fellow caregivers. Just as many techniques and technologies emerged around protocols and personal protective equipment to keep our doctors and nurses safe — and working to provide care through challenging times. 

While everything changed, really nothing changed. Innovation remains the mechanism to improve and extend human life, while creating economic opportunities for the communities we serve. Innovation will always happen best — and fastest — at the intersection of knowledge domains where ideas come together and get fertilized. 

Sara Vaezy. Chief Digital Strategy and Business Development Officer at Providence (Renton, Wash.). At the beginning of the pandemic, our focus was nearly entirely on managing the crisis in front of us. Innovation came in the form of leveraging and scaling the technology that we had in place to meet the new needs of our communities — including delivering care remotely and self-service information, screening and triage — very rapidly. Part of this meant the velocity of decision making was greatly increased. Roles expanded to think about how to apply existing technology in new ways, at an unprecedented pace. 

Today — over a year and a half since the first COVID patient was treated in one of our hospitals — we're both continuing to respond while also thinking strategically about innovation in a vastly changed environment at new, breakneck velocity and intensity levels. The competitive landscape since COVID has evolved to include digital innovators and payor-providers that entered or accelerated their work with COVID. Much of our time and focus now is on business model evolution enabled or supported by digital innovation and adoption.

Karen Murphy, PhD, RN. Chief Innovation Officer at Geisinger (Danville, Pa.). Innovation leaders were called upon during the pandemic to lead fundamentally different approaches to problem solving. Health systems were required to build a new infrastructure to support COVID-19 testing, results reporting, remote monitoring and vaccine administration. 

The time frame for developing innovations went from months to hours, days and weeks. We were required to be nimble and focused. The innovation team worked on rapidly deploying digital technology to solve the most urgent needs. 

When we emerge from the pandemic, we will have several use cases to serve as examples of the "possible." Our work during the pandemic demonstrated that we can contribute to successful transformation of patient/consumer experience and care delivery while lowering total cost of care.

Richard Zane, MD. Chief Innovation Officer at UCHealth (Aurora, Colo.). My role as a leader has certainly evolved as the pandemic has taken hold, and it became very obvious that the current way in which we cared for patients was not going to work without an innovative approach to care. Although tragic, no crisis is without opportunity to accelerate change.  

As an innovation leader who is also a physician and clinical leader, the pandemic represented an opportunity to engage both patients and providers in fundamental cultural change which would have taken many years. As everyone knows, virtual health became a central theme in the pandemic but just as importantly, the ability to have wide-scale and enthusiastic adoption of clinical decision support was embraced as was deploying different forms of intelligence and technology into clinical workflows.  

Omkar Kulkarni. Chief Innovation Officer at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. The pandemic has made innovation crucial in all aspects of hospital operations. Given the dynamic nature of the pandemic, innovation efforts and resources are often targeted to solve pressing, time sensitive problems that impact the immediate needs of the hospital and our patients and families. The output of these innovation activities are often simple solutions that use existing technologies and tools readily available for repurposing. 

Frugality and agility have been especially important tenets during the panic as risk tolerance is lower given the high stakes and tight timelines. We have also found the need to partner and collaborate with others in our local ecosystem to achieve rapidly scalable wins.

Jason Joseph. Senior Vice President and Chief Digital and Information Officer at Spectrum Health (Grand Rapids, Mich.). We have seen innovation come into the mainstream. Often we think of innovation as a small, tangential activity to find something purely novel, most likely with technology. With the pandemic, we have accelerated our need to find new ways of doing things and to deliver them quickly. We have brought new technology to bear at a record pace, and we have been able to adapt our operations in near-real time. 

We essentially put innovation on overdrive and made it the core of our work — from standing up mass vaccine centers, to creating digitally-enabled care pathways and tools, to re-inventing how we deliver services in a socially-distanced world, to enabling virtual work in an efficient manner. All of these things needed an element of innovation to get where we needed them to be.

As we innovate, we are forcing hidden barriers into the light via experimentation. We saw so many of these barriers uncovered within health care, such as lack of connectivity, digital competency, and the need for comprehensive managed workflow.  We have shined a spotlight on how much of healthcare relies on people and inconsistent manual processes to get through the system. That needs to change, and that also requires changing a leader’s traditional mindset.

As all of this has unfolded, my role as chief digital and information officer is maturing as well. Increasingly, my job is to collaborate with my peers, set up the right structures and investments, set the right tone and help people see beyond the current state into the future possibilities. Seeing problems as opportunities and evolving from traditional management methods to an empowerment mindset is key. We are organizing teams around agile principles, which requires a high degree of leadership alignment to be successful. Innovation cannot happen from the top of the organization, it needs to be built into its core with structures that reinforce and accelerate it.

Nick Patel, MD. Chief Digital Officer at Prisma Health (Columbia, S.C.). My role as a health innovation leader has not only evolved professionally, but has also been validated by the pandemic. Health system leaders and providers have really got to see our technology initiatives step up to meet the need of the community at a critical time.

Team members are more comfortable in using novel tools like chatbots, remote patient monitoring and remote examination tools in care delivery. This has driven up adoption and thirst for continued care delivery transformation. The pandemic has helped further mature our digital transformation strategy, forecasting and long-term vision. The importance of the CDO role is now recognized as a critical strategic position for major health systems. Lastly, the governance model around the role has also greatly evolved to better position the digital health and transformation team to be more effective.

Mark Kandrysawtz. Chief Innovation Officer at WellSpan Health (York, Pa.). My role as an innovation leader has evolved during the pandemic in two ways. First, our team has sought to flex and rapidly grow our existing digital health capabilities with new features and functionality that enable us to care for our communities amidst COVID-19. We scaled our video visit program from 11 visits a week to 11,000 a week in every care setting — beyond primary and urgent care to specialties of all kinds. In addition, we built a custom vaccine scheduler overnight, which allowed us to rapidly start vaccinations — our best tool to keep our communities safe from COVID-19.

Second, we have accelerated the creation of entirely new digital health offerings so we can reach people where they are safely; and technology-enabled experiences so we can keep people safe when we see them in-person. As innovators, we see opportunity in challenging times. The pandemic has forced a decade’s worth of technological advancement in a year’s time. Harnessing those advancements is enabling us to create new convenient and easy-to-use services.

Claus Torp Jensen, PhD. Chief Innovation Officer and Executive Vice President of Research and Development and IT at Teladoc Health (Purchase, N.Y.). The pandemic has underscored how important it is to see innovation as part of your day job. True healthcare innovation happens in the intersection between clinical science, technology science and experience design. 

We always have to think about our products and services in two different dimensions. The first dimension is how we deliver programs and capabilities that have a meaningful positive impact on patient health. The second dimension is how we generate adoption from both health consumers and providers.

In the end, healthcare is about people and the choices each of us makes on our life journey. Taking a whole person perspective is, in my opinion, necessary for innovation to lead to meaningful positive change. Our healthcare heroes have proven their ability to adapt and overcome daily over the past 18 months. We as designers, technologists and data scientists must do the same for them and their patients.

Prentice Tom, MD. Chief Futurist at Vituity (Emeryville, Calif.). As a healthcare futurist at a multispecialty physician partnership and chief medical officer to an innovative artificial intelligence-based healthtech company, my role continues to focus on the drivers influencing how we adapt care delivery to meet the needs of tomorrow. Now, more than ever, the industry is receptive and eager to implement new approaches that improve and enhance the ways we engage with our patients and expand access to care within communities.

I see a very bright future state not far from now that has the patient at the center of the care delivery experience. This trend began well before the pandemic but is now universally recognized as a fundamental part of our healthcare evolution.


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