Houston Methodist innovation VP's advice to healthcare organizations: 'Disrupt or be disrupted'

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Though it has since been formally rebranded as the Center for Innovation, Houston Methodist's innovation team can't seem to shake its tongue-in-cheek nickname: the D.I.O.P group, short for "Digital Innovation-Obsessed People."

It's an all too fitting name for the health system's innovation center, where Michelle Stansbury, vice president of IT innovation, works alongside a multidisciplinary team to rapidly develop and implement a variety of tech-based solutions to better serve the entire Houston Methodist ecosystem, from patients and clinicians to prospective employees.

"We either succeed fast or we fail fast," Ms. Stansbury said, explaining that the onus is on healthcare organizations to keep up with the swiftly changing state of healthcare as increasingly more technology and consumer companies move into the sector — lest hospitals and health systems become the Blockbusters of their own industries.

Here, Ms. Stansbury discusses how Houston Methodist takes a dynamic approach to innovation, and why healthcare organizations must learn to look past the "dazzle" of shiny new technology.

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

Question: What does innovation look like at Houston Methodist? What are your goals and priorities for your role?

Michelle Stansbury: It comes down to the core of what our CEO has said many times to us: We're trying to take this big, complex health system of ours and make it more accessible to our patients in whatever manner that they may want. Patients are demanding convenience, and they're demanding it like they never have before, because they're already experiencing it in their daily lives, from the airport to the bank — so why can't they have it in their healthcare environment?

How are we doing that at Houston Methodist? We have our own Center for Innovation, and we all bring different perspectives, which helps us create change within the organization. We're looking at not just what we can do for patients, but also how we can better know them, and how we can better know our employees or potential employees. We want to be seen as the true innovator in healthcare, which would, of course, help us be able to attract that top talent. So we're looking at innovation in all aspects and not just for the traditional patient — who, of course, is still very, very important for us.

One of the things we're trying to do is take that opportunity to change the way we interact with our patients and to make their journey here more seamless than ever before. They don't necessarily want to come into our four walls anymore to get healthcare; they want to access it in more convenient ways, like through virtual health, through texting or through an e-visit. And with the things that we've already rolled out, we've had a very high satisfaction rate.

Q: What's an example of an initiative the Center for Innovation has launched to improve patient access and convenience?

MS: Recently, we rolled out a product through WELL Health to replace the old system of receiving phone calls for reminders with whatever a patient's preference is. Nine times out of 10, they prefer to receive a text, and so now, they can get a text for their reminder. It offers two-way communication, so they can text back to confirm the appointment or reschedule, and more of them than you would expect are even sending us emojis to let us know how happy they are with the new system.

Now, we're trying to take that a step further, to figure out how patients can start the very beginning of the healthcare journey with a text — from scheduling an appointment to taking care of questionnaires, all without having to log into a portal. We believe that's where healthcare is really going, and we're trying to get there for our patients as fast as we can.

Q: What's an innovation initiative that you'd like to implement but is still out of reach — whether due to a lack of resources or because the technology isn't there yet, for example?

MS: We've done quite a bit in virtual healthcare and quite a bit with chatbots. Now we're looking at natural language processing, and at how we can better utilize voice-enabled technology, because if you look at a lot of households, people are getting used to voice-enabled transactional processes with their Amazon and Google voice assistants. How can you get that into healthcare? That's where it is that we're trying to explore and work through.

We've got our own technology hub at Houston Methodist where we have challenged some of our vendors to come in and start working with us in a real, live environment and figure out how to make these things happen — but within stringent privacy concerns. We have to make sure we do it right; if someone's talking into a device to access healthcare, how can you ensure you have the right person on the phone to match them up with the right medical record? A lot of people are working on addressing that, and some are already at the pilot stage, but nobody has perfected it and I don't know that everybody feels quite comfortable with it yet. But we are still trying to pursue it.

Q: What are some barriers or challenges to healthcare innovation? How do you overcome those obstacles?

For us, it's just been time and resources. How we are structured in our organization — and I wouldn't call it a barrier, because it's been a true benefit to help us innovate very quickly — is that everyone in our Center for Innovation has a dual role. Our chief innovation officer is also the CEO of one of our largest hospitals; I'm the vice president within IT, but I'm also the vice president of the Center for Innovation. That helps us to bring the knowledge of operations into innovation and to move quickly in bringing the solutions to fruition and determining whether they worked or didn't. We either succeed fast or we fail fast.

But while we've done extremely well and are able to move much faster than most organizations, time and resources are still big challenges; time and having the capacity to quickly change where needed, while still keeping focused on operations. Technology is changing so rapidly and new vendors are coming up at an increasingly fast pace, and since so many of them are converging to the same point, you really have to decide on a single avenue, because otherwise you'll end up scattered all over the place and unable to get the solution you want.

Q: What is one of the biggest mistakes that you think players in the healthcare industry — whether on the clinical side or among those who are moving from the tech industry into healthcare — are making a lot in healthcare innovation?

MS: Trying to do too much. Many of the vendors that have not quite made it to fruition have tried to take on too much too soon. The ones who have done it extremely well have stayed very focused on solving just two to three problems. They don't try to become the end-all, be-all product that's going to solve everything for healthcare or that's going to compete with some of the big EHR vendors. Those who have done well aren't competing with the big vendors' functionality, but they've found a way to complement the existing system.

Q: Do you have a final piece of advice for other healthcare innovators?

MS: You can get caught up in all the dazzle that's out there right now with innovation and technology, but you have to stay close to the problems that you're trying to solve in your institution — they're different for every institution — and make sure that the innovation you're trying to lead has a solid ROI to it. Sometimes you can get caught up with going to conferences and seeing these new things that give you that "wow" factor and thinking you have to have them, but they may actually impede some of the other things you should be doing that would solve those core problems for your organization.

This is an exciting time in healthcare. Most organizations are already taking advantage of it, but we've all got to wake up and take notice of it. If you look at other organizations who had never traditionally been in healthcare that are now in our space, they are disrupting it daily, and if we don't wake up and do something, we'll find ourselves in the same situation as Blockbuster and other companies that weren't paying attention to transformation in their industries. A year ago, nobody could've guessed Walmart would get into healthcare, but they're here. Healthcare organizations either need to disrupt themselves, or be disrupted by somebody else.

More articles on innovation:
United Health Foundation funnels $1.1M into expanding access to digital health tech
How WakeMed is reaching new heights for innovation, including with its drone program
Michigan Medicine receives $10M donation for global health innovation

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