Michael Dowling: Partnering with others in pursuit of good ideas

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It's human tendency to stay within our comfort zones. We experience it in our work environments and in our social interactions. It tends to give us comfort and confidence, but too often it comes with a cost — a reluctance to get other inputs, viewpoints and perspective.

This insular approach tends to be true in healthcare. Too often, we limit our learning by engaging only with others in our respective fields. Hospitals and health systems engage with similar entities when they wish to learn how to innovate or do things differently. These interactions, of course, can be extraordinarily beneficial. Such cross-fertilization within our industry should continue and accelerate.

However, we need to go further by reaching out to other industries, both for-profit and nonprofit. We all share common elements and challenges, irrespective of the product or services we deliver.

All organizations, whether they are local, regional, national or global, consistently deal with common issues, such as how to:

  • recruit and retain staff;
  • onboard and educate new staff;
  • develop and implement performance metrics;
  • develop leadership training programs;
  • plan for succession;
  • enhance their supply chain; and
  • make appropriate technology and infrastructure investments.

All health systems struggle with these and other issues. Lessons from other industries can be enormously helpful.

For instance, when I started looking into how to create an in-house corporate university at Northwell Health in the late 1990s, I turned to GE for advice because it has a premier corporate university at its campus in Crotonville, N.Y. I knew I could learn a lot from GE in enhancing staff education and creating a culture of continuous learning.

While I also looked at other organizations, I developed a relationship with leaders at GE to help us design and customize performance enhancement programs such as Six Sigma and Lean. With GE's help, we went on to create what would become our Center for Learning and Innovation in 2002 – one of the first steps I took when I became CEO.

In another example, when Northwell decided to develop one of the nation's first medical simulation training centers in 2006, few organizations in our industry could provide a model. We wanted to develop a space where medical students, physicians, nurses, surgeons and administrators could experience the rigor of real-world scenarios while still having a buffer from real-world consequences. After some face-to-face networking, our chief learning officer connected with leaders from JetBlue. While simulators at the time were a relatively new development for the healthcare industry, aircraft manufacturers had been refining this technology for years.

After some continued dialogue, JetBlue expressed interest in working with us and we were able to take advantage of their expertise to help craft our own simulation center, called the Patient Safety Institute. It now occupies more than 45,000 square feet of space. There, we train thousands of our own clinicians every year, as well as members of the Air National Guard who are involved in rescuing fallen troops behind enemy lines and other missions, agents from law enforcement agencies such as the FBI and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and first responders.

This is just another example of the little-known, intellectual altruism that helps power the corporate world, with leaders from different industries cross-pollinating ideas to the benefit of all parties.

The reason these partnerships are so essential for those of us in healthcare is because of the breadth of our services. If you're running a large health system, you probably have one of the largest food service operations in your area. We would be fooling ourselves if we didn't think the restaurant industry had something to teach us.

Other examples: I've learned a lot about our supply chain operations and transporting delicate materials from Tiffany & Co. Our head of patient experience honed his customer service skills over a 20-year career with the Ritz Carlton. The complexity of hospitals and health systems means healthcare leaders have the ability to draw on expertise from a multitude of industries. It would be a waste to not take advantage of those resources.   

How can healthy systems go about forming these partnerships?

Forming unorthodox partnerships is much easier than many would expect. If the issue you want to tackle is supply chain management, then look around and see what companies have the best supply chain methods. Initiate conversations and make it clear that these relationships can be mutually beneficial. I think many would be surprised to learn how receptive executives from other industries are in exploring these types of relationships.

When you find out how similar your organizational issues are, you will be fascinated by the extent to which people are open to help. Not once have I been rejected by an organization I was looking to partner with.  

There is no monopoly on good ideas.

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