'We either have to succeed fast or fail fast': How Houston Methodist's innovation hub is making its mark

Houston Methodist went live with its Center for Innovation Technology Hub in 2019 and is already making an impact on the health system's operations and patient experience months into existence.

The health system created the hub in a de-commissioned hospital wing so it could be used as a trial space for new technology, including remote patient monitoring, natural language processing and ambient listening for clinicians. A stipulations of building the hub as an innovation space was that it had to convert back into nursing units within 24 hours if needed, and the innovation team was able to do that while also creating a space where vendors could come and showcase their technology.

"There was a huge mind-shift for the health system when we developed the innovation hub because most hospitals and organizations have a 'must be perfect' mentality and never want to give up; the idea is that you keep trying until you get it right," said Michelle Stansbury, vice president of IT innovation at Houston Methodist. "That wasn't our model. We either have to succeed fast or fail fast. We innovate in 30, 60 and 90-day cycles."

One of the projects Ms. Stansbury and her team examined a year ago was ED surge prediction technology, but that project failed in the beginning. The technology aimed to analyze information about patients and develop predictive models to alert clinicians when a surge is taking place based on EHR information. The system was supposed to send notifications in real time and help the hospital predict the patient population as well as length of stay for patients. However, the notifications were often delayed by 30 to 45 minutes and the health system ended the project after 60 days.

"We learned a lot about what worked and what didn't," said Ms. Stansbury. "We were in talks with a new vendor to provide a similar service when the pandemic hit. Unfortunately, we didn't have it ready in time for the pandemic, but we had surges in ED volumes before COVID-19 and I foresee volumes going back to the way they were eventually and we will still need to understand how quickly we need to turnaround patients to make sure they are discharged appropriately."

“The Hub was extremely useful when COVID hit the Houston area,” said Ms. Stansbury. “We knew that our virtual technology was going to be needed by many clinicians who hadn’t yet been trained. So we quickly converted many of the rooms in our technology hub to train physicians on how to perform a virtual visits with patients. In just a few weeks, we were able to train over 900 physicians on this technology and our virtual visits have increased 1,500% since March.”

Currently, the hub is hosting a pilot chemo unit project that includes virtual reality technology for patients undergoing infusion therapy to help them feel less pain and stay occupied during the process. "We envisioned the virtual reality technology would be utilized in many different areas and clinicians are considering whether it would be helpful for patients undergoing surgery to see what their surgeons plan to do," said Ms. Stansbury. "As soon as COVID-19 calms down, we are piloting this program for pain relief as well."

The VR system would take patients on a virtual adventure, including a walk through the Red Wood Forests or along the ocean's shore. So far, the health system has received positive feedback on using the technology with infusion patients.

Houston Methodist's innovation team will install the technology in the birthing center as a pain therapy and a distractor during child birth. "We believe this is a new wave of where things are hedging and it will spread throughout our organization," she said. "Prior to COVID-19, we had plans to pilot it across the organization in several departments, including physical therapy. Then when the pandemic hit, we had to put those projects on hold but we see them ramping back up as clinicians are able to start seeing their patients again."

Every project that goes through the Center for Innovation must have a return-on-investment and demonstrate success metrics; otherwise, the project fails. Ms. Stansbury and her team work closely with the operations and IT departments to examine the cost-benefit for new innovations and systems, whether they result in a time savings or cost-savings for the system. One example of a project with a strong ROI was Houston Methodist's efforts to roll out Amazon Alexa devices in patient rooms. The patients are able to ask Alexa to call nurses, call their family members or play music.

"It's hard to put a financial ROI on that, but it had a huge patient experience satisfaction boost, which is something we are looking for," said Ms. Stansbury. “We also deployed Apple tablets to our COVID patient rooms so they could communicate with their family members who were not able to see them while in the hospital.”

"We saw tremendous financial ROI on one project that we did roll out, robotic process automation or intelligent automation, in one supply chain process, credentialing and revenue cycle areas. The system was able to do repetitive tasks and allow our FTEs to complete other needed tasks for the health system. Our chief innovation officer, Dr. Roberta Schwartz, saw how financial institutions were using RPA and wanted to apply that to our organization.”

Mangers still must evaluate the "digital workers" in the same way they do FTEs to ensure they achieve the right results and decide whether they need additional processes to achieve greater benefit. "We have a lot of interest in RPA, but we are being selective in the use cases to focus on the top return while also transitioning FTEs to more critical areas."


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