Michael Dowling: How a 'Shark Tank' approach can help organizations find the next big healthcare innovation

Every health care organization relies on its senior leaders for ideas that will help set them apart from their competitors, but it’s often the people on the front lines of clinical care, research or day-to-day operations who are the true innovators.

The biggest problem most health systems face is not a lack of good ideas, but a lack of opportunity for employees to express those ideas. Every year, Northwell Health puts forth an open call to our employees to submit innovative ideas they think can significantly improve patient care or our day-to-day efficiency.

Our efforts to tap into the creativity that exists within all health care organizations date back more than a decade ago, when we launched an initiative called the "Idea Forum" to solicit suggestions from our employees about how to improve efficiency and save money.

We were flooded with a plethora of good ideas that came from employees at all levels of the organization, from the laundry crew and maintenance teams to departmental heads.

Recognizing the gold mine of innovation that rests within the minds of our employees, we created a “President’s Award for Innovation” in 2007 to honor individuals and teams for their pioneering ideas at our health system’s Annual Meeting. Beginning in 2017, we pushed our culture of innovation a step further by holding what we call a Made for Big Ideas showcase, where we hold an “Innovation Challenge” modeled after the Shark Tank TV show.

Each year, we put out a request to all employees for innovative ideas that could potentially be spun off into a commercial venture or standalone business. A committee of Northwell leaders involved in both our clinical operations and our venture capital fund reviews and selects what they consider the top ideas, which are then presented to a panel of external judges. Similar to the TV show, the panel receives a written proposal about each idea and the employees have five minutes to give their best sales pitch and answer questions about how their ideas could impact the health system or be transitioned into legitimate businesses. These presentations are filmed and broadcast throughout our health system. The judges select one winner and a first runner-up, each of whom receive a $500,000 investment, while the next two runners-up each receive $100,000 to further advance their ideas.

The showcase has undoubtedly fostered a culture of innovation across our organization, providing us with ideas we would not have otherwise received, but it also enhances employee morale. This kind of engagement makes employees feel like their talents and knowledge are recognized and appreciated, and encourages them to look at their daily responsibilities through a creative lens. The most influential and out-of-the-box ideas often come from people who are involved in the day-in and day-out delivery of patient care.

At this year's showcase, two of our medical researchers presented their proposal for a first-ever, non-invasive method for diagnosing endometriosis based on the analysis of menstrual effluent, which took first prize. Second place went to a team of IT-proficient doctors and nurses who are developing an "EMRBot," which has the potential to significantly improve physician-patient encounters by utilizing chatbots to transcribe speech directly into the patient’s electronic medical record.

Not only do these innovations have the potential to significantly impact the way we deliver care here at Northwell, but we will utilize our venture capital resources to give these employees the proper backing to ensure that their innovations can be commercialized and made available to providers across the country. The employees who came up with the ideas also receive a financial stake in those businesses so they may reap the rewards of their ingenuity.

The ideas that we have been able to commercialize are not only coming from clinicians and researchers. Several years ago, one of our environmental services supervisors helped develop a new patient privacy curtain called Hand Shield®, which includes a 10-inch-wide panel of cleanable laminate along the outer edge of the curtain where most people grab it, making it easier and less costly to clean, and reducing the build-up of bacteria.

The Hand Shield® is now being used in hospitals across the country.

Many healthcare leaders ask me what the hurdles were for implementing this program. It takes commitment by leadership, trust in your employees and talented people to organize. If you give employees the opportunity to share their thoughts and suggestions, you will be overwhelmed by the amount of good ideas you receive. There is a palpable hunger within our industry for this kind of innovation.

Leaders must establish a culture in which people are free to make suggestions without fear of being humiliated or ignored. A culture without fear of reprisal, and one that doesn't present unnecessary hurdles, can quickly cultivate innovation, boost employee morale and improve day-to-day operations.

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