ProMedica innovation chief's Nike-inspired advice for hospitals considering launching innovation efforts: 'Just do it'

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John Pigott, MD, is chief innovations officer and leads strategic business development for Toledo, Ohio-based ProMedica and its innovation arm.

In his several years of overseeing the three "buckets" of ProMedica Innovations' work — employee engagement, an innovation center and two venture funds — Dr. Pigott has gleaned quite a bit of wisdom about what it takes to make a hospital or health system's innovation initiatives run smoothly.

Chief among these are time, executive buy-in and a relentless drive to solve healthcare's many challenges. "You have to make sure that you're engaging technology and introducing technology into the system … and bringing a best-in-class solution to a problem within the healthcare system," he said. "That's what innovation should do, whether it's an internal project or technology you're bringing in from the outside, to either save or make money."

Here, Dr. Pigott shares how other health systems can secure those crucial components of an innovation program. The first step, he said, quoting the timeless Nike slogan, is to "just do it."

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

Question: What does innovation look like at ProMedica?

Dr. John Pigott:
From a very high-level view, ProMedica Innovations does three things. The first is engagement and collecting ideas that can be commercialized; we really go out and engage our employees. We're up to almost 70,000 employees with the acquisition of HCR ManorCare last year, and we've got a lot of really great, innovative employees. We have a web-based system and a computerized system to take in invention disclosures, and the staff also goes out and we have a rotation for the acute care hospitals near our main campus in Toledo.

The second thing is we have a very nice innovation center. It's about 7,000 square feet, and it's a business center where our staff of nine people supplies innovation services to our innovators. That includes looking at intellectual property and prototyping, those types of things, to move projects along. We can also support digital health as well; we have a company embedded in the innovation center that helps to develop and create digital health solutions.

The last bucket is ProMedica Ventures. We have two funds: One is off the corporate balance sheet, and another is a fund that we raised with the state of Ohio that we can invest out of into companies that we engage either from within the system or from our really nice relationships with other venture capital funds across the nation. We've invested almost $20 million into medical devices and health information technology.

Q: What would you say are some barriers to healthcare innovation, and how do you overcome those obstacles?

Some of it would just be trying to tease out exactly what an invention is with our innovators. People have good ideas, but not all of them are inventions, and so we have to be very prescriptive. We have a really nice innovation educational program to help our innovators — they might have a great idea, but it doesn't always translate into a commercializable invention.

The other part, I would say, is — and don't take this the wrong way — for these companies, getting the first million dollars is, I won't say it's not difficult, but it's not the hardest thing to do. Once they're into their Series A, we can get very nice investor networks together, but there's this "valley of death" between angel funding or seed funding and Series A in which it can be very difficult to raise further money. We're learning how to do that within our system as well: We've got a pretty good angel network and early seed network that had to be developed with our partners, especially around the region and in Ohio, to do that.

Q: In the same vein, what do you see as a big mistake that players in the healthcare industry are making in healthcare innovation?

When I look at a lot of systems — and we have a number of hospitals and hospital systems who have reached out to us looking for advice — the thing that really strikes me is that in some of these centers, the C-suite is not supportive of an innovation program. The reason, I think, is that sometimes people don't understand that it takes time. When you start an innovation program, it's just like a startup company. You need somewhere between four, five, six years to really hit your stride, especially if you're an investor, for that return on investment in the technology to come back. Thank goodness we have at ProMedica a very supportive executive suite and CEO, Randy Oostra, who understand that, but I think some healthcare systems just don't get why they should be doing innovation.

Q: What advice would you give to those systems? How do they get that executive buy-in?

Once again, I think it's really an educational process. It has to at some point affect their bottom line. So you have to make sure that you're engaging technology and introducing technology into the system — whether it's something that you've grown internally or something, because of all your connections, that you've brought from outside the industry — and bringing a best-in-class solution to a problem within the healthcare system. It's really just education: saying, "Let us address your pain points, let us help you do that." That's what innovation should do, whether it's an internal project or technology you're bringing in from the outside, to either save or make money; it can affect the bottom line in a very positive manner.

Q: Could you talk about an innovation initiative at ProMedica that you are especially excited about?

There's a ton going on, but a couple of them stand out. When we looked at the HCR ManorCare partnership and acquisition, there was a very definitive statement from the healthcare system that we want to improve the lives of our seniors. We can do that through this continuum of care from the acute care setting to either assisted living or at home, so HCR ManorCare, with their assisted living facilities, has been a great platform. What we have been asked to do is to bring up what I like to call the "living lab," which really is a demonstration lab of technologies both internal to ProMedica and from outside companies and partners to improve the lives of our seniors.

Another really interesting one we've worked a lot on recently is there are couple of very innovative healthcare systems in China, and we've already submitted our first response to an RFP to develop an innovation center in China. They have visited here already and seen what we can do, and they really liked it and were asking how we could help them do the same thing. Because of our international initiative, we're over in different parts of China a lot, so we thought this would dovetail very nicely with those efforts.

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

If they're not in the business of innovation yet, I would quote the Nike slogan: Just do it. I think that they would be very surprised at all of the peripheral good things that happen once you start an innovation program. I think they'll be surprised by all the connections, whether it's through other tech incubators — we have a very nice relationship with Matter in Chicago that we fostered. We have a very nice relationship with the government of Quebec, and we've evaluated about 40 programs out of Quebec to bring down to ProMedica hospitals for pilot testing.

So I would say the first thing is to just do it, and the second thing is to be persistent at it. You can't just give it 12 or 18 months before the C-suite abandons it. You have to be persistent and dedicated to it for at least five years to give it some traction and the care and nurturing that a young program needs to blossom into something bigger and revenue producing for the hospital.

More articles on innovation:
Physician viewpoint: Human innovation is a needed challenge to the healthcare status quo
Malcolm Gladwell: 3 reasons for the 'lag' between innovation and adoption
Healthcare innovation is focused on personalization, cost savings: report

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