'Innovation is a journey': 3 insights for mastering healthcare data and igniting change

The pace of innovation in healthcare is typically slower than in other industries, but the landscape is rapidly changing and the future looks bright. Technologies like generative artificial intelligence and advanced analytics are more accessible than ever before. In addition, the next generation of workforce talent has both the skills and the desire to apply technology to administrative tasks in healthcare.

To learn more, Becker's Hospital Review recently spoke with two leaders from Huron— Todd Charest, Senior Director, and J. Tod Fetherling, Managing Director with a focus on product management, data and analytics and global products — about how healthcare leaders can leverage data to ignite innovation, as well as strategic decision-making.  

A culture of innovation is essential

For innovation to thrive in any organization, it must be front and center in employees' minds. "We work with a large healthcare services firm that commits 10 percent of its IT budget to innovation," Mr. Fetherling said. "That drives a culture of innovation because it's an expectation, not an afterthought."

Innovative organizations also tend to bring together diverse talent to solve problems. Huron regularly runs innovation challenges in which employees collaborate across multiple industry segments that usually don't work together. The same principle can and should be applied in healthcare, as hospitals and health systems don't consist of one single function — they depend on many different groups, from clinical to administrative.

It's also important to remember that innovation requires failure. "The organizations that thrive and have innovative cultures are those that celebrate failures and big wins equally," Mr. Charest said. "They both add value in different ways. The lessons learned from a failed project can leapfrog you to new ways of thinking."

Maximize existing data comes with hurdles

As healthcare organizations consider how to utilize their existing data for strategic decision-making, a good first step is taking inventory of all data assets and evaluating the integrity of the information.

"Often, when organizations try to use more advanced analytics, they run into distrust of information or they find they need to clean up the data," Mr. Charest said. "If your information has integrity, you will gain trustworthy insights from it. If it doesn't, everything stops."

In addition, cross-departmental data sharing and vetting are essential. "As people get more exposure to information, they ask better questions," Mr. Fetherling said. "Storytelling using data analytics drives innovation quickly."

Organizational silos can be a significant challenge. This is particularly problematic in multi-hospital health systems. Many times, the technology that could address these issues are afterthoughts, rather than part of an integrated and strategic response.

Innovation often requires a mindset shift

Change management usually requires organizations to reevaluate their views on what is important or how to use technology. "Sometimes, data tells us things we don't want to hear," Mr. Charest said. "You must have an open mind and ask the next set of questions that will get you the answers needed to move forward, rather than prove the historical point of view that your organization once had."

Traditionally, Mr. Charest said, many healthcare leaders have asked questions that are siloed in nature. A better approach is to develop questions that focus on how things are interrelated.

"Asking how productive we are does us a disservice in healthcare," Mr. Charest said. "The real question is, 'what are the outcomes from our efforts?' In some cases, we want to be less productive because it will generate a better outcome — this is particularly true for value-based care. We must keep reminding ourselves to think bigger."

Mon Health System (Morgantown, W.Va.) is a great example of a health system that has broken down organizational silos and utilized data and technology to provide the best possible health outcomes for the community at the lowest possible cost. Huron and Mon Health recently worked together on a program that identifies patients at high risk of a lung cancer diagnosis. Their approach leveraged a machine learning algorithm within Huron Intelligence® Healthcare Insights and identified at-risk individuals.

“We then launched an outreach program through primary care physicians, encouraging these patients to get a preventative screening," Mr. Fetherling said. " 811 patients, had lung nodules and are now receiving treatment for lung cancer."

The Mon Health System story illustrates the power of collaboration among technologists, clinicians and administrators to take action on healthcare data. "Mon Health could have said that they didn't trust the data," Mr. Fetherling said. "Instead, they embraced it, took action and now it's having a major impact on the community. The organization and patients are both better off. We also believe the overall total cost of care has decreased, since we didn't wait for these patients to arrive when they were at a more critical state."

Innovation is a journey for employees and patients alike

Mr. Fetherling and Mr. Charest offered three insights for healthcare organizations looking to embrace innovation:

  1. Innovation is a learning journey. Many emerging technologies hold great promise, but it takes time to understand how to best use them. "Progress often requires tripping along the way," Mr. Charest said. "Organizations may not have it all figured out, and that's OK."

  1. Innovation can be uncomfortable for employees. Technology and automation are valuable, but hospitals and health systems must recognize that employees may be worried about job security. "Organizations need to train talent to become 'care engineers' focused on improving health in the community," Mr. Fetherling said. "This can deliver major improvements in quality of life and reductions in the total cost of care."

  1. The patient journey is where innovation in healthcare occurs. As organizations build systems, they must strive for those systems to be as frictionless as platforms that consumers use in daily life, such as Uber or Amazon. "We must embrace the patient and build innovative solutions that are centered on their journey," Mr. Fetherling said. "This means connecting technologies to individuals to improve their outcomes."

Taking the next steps

When it comes to leveraging healthcare data and technologies to promote innovation, now is the time to take action. "You have to get started, and you can't bury your head in the sand," Mr. Charest said. "The ability to use data to solve bigger problems is so important."

Mr. Fetherling agreed. "Cultural change management is also essential," he said. "Organizations can't get to the second or third stage of maturity in the change curve without buy-in at the first stage and agreement about the problem statement and solutions."

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