Mayo Clinic innovation leader Dr. Douglas Wood: 'There is no innovation without action'

Douglas Wood, MD, has served as the medical director of the innovation and design team within Rochester, Minn.-based Mayo Clinic's Robert D. and Patricia E. Kern Center for the Science of Health Care Delivery since 2013.

Founded in 2008 and previously known as the Center for Innovation, the innovation and design department has launched hundreds of innovative projects to address the challenges of healthcare delivery in the last decade. Its multidisciplinary team includes designers, project managers, IT experts, ethnographers, curators, graphic artists and physicians.

Dr. Wood recently spoke to Becker's Hospital Review about the innovation projects he is most excited about, and how he and the rest of Mayo's innovation team overcome the many obstacles facing healthcare innovators — all with the help of their motto: "Think big, start small, move fast."

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

Question: What does innovation look like at Mayo Clinic? What are your goals and priorities for the innovation and design team?

Dr. Douglas Wood: We have a diverse approach to innovation at Mayo that represents a combination of the kind of innovation that occurs in the laboratories of our scientists, the kind of sustaining innovation that occurs in our programs in quality management and the kind of innovation that we do in our innovation and design area. It is transformative innovation, and it's based on human-centered design. In that, what we're trying to do is innovate solutions to the experience of health and healthcare.

Q: How does the innovation department interact with the Mayo Clinic executive team, and vice versa?

DW: Over the years, our leaders have emphasized to us that we need to work on projects that are highly strategic. The way they've expressed that to us is that about three-quarters of our work should be on projects that will have substantial strategic importance to Mayo, and about a quarter of the projects we do would be more of what are called "grassroots projects." We regularly have discussions with our leaders about the direction that they want to take Mayo, and we then think about what we've heard from them in terms of how we organize our work.

Q: What have you found to be barriers to healthcare innovation? How do you overcome these challenges?

DW: Quite frequently, physicians will come to us and ask us to implement or create an app, thinking that will be the solution to their problem. We have to go back and ask them to tell us what the problem is that they're trying to solve with their app and recognize that the application may or may not actually solve that particular problem. So the first barrier, frequently, is how people look at innovation. We have to make them aware that when we use human-centered design and observational research, we have to go back and actually understand the needs of the end user — the patient — rather than to look at it from the physician's perspective.

In healthcare organizations, sometimes the nature of the bureaucracy can be an impediment as well. Often in big organizations there may be a series of approvals that you have to go through with lots of committees, and sometimes that can end up being a barrier. At Mayo, that is a circumstance that we used to run into, but we've found ways that we can simplify that process so that we are not engaged in going through committee approval to do innovation projects.

The advantage that we have is our senior leaders have specific expectations for what they want us to do. And, over the years, we have found within the organization several areas that we can partner with very well, and we've actually gone back and worked on multiple projects with these clinical areas.

Finding the clinical areas that have a high interest in using these methods is the first step toward making it easier to do the work of innovation and to actually implement it. But also, making sure that you incorporate the clinical area in the research so that the observations as well as the experimentation plays a role is really a critical aspect to keeping people involved and making sure the innovation will actually be implemented.

Q: What is a big mistake you see players in the healthcare industry — whether internally, on the clinical side, or externally, in the tech world — making when it comes to innovation?

DW: One significant problem is to consider that you have to do only big projects. The problem with that is you can easily get distracted and not finish what it is you want to do. We have a saying: "Think big, start small, move fast." It's reasonable to think big, but then you also have to think about how you can make progress by using a series of projects that are building block projects that will result in an endpoint.

If you start to think really big — which, again, is not a big problem — but you then become distracted, the project will not come to fruition. So there is a bit of a discipline about taking things in the right order and at the right size, and having the discipline and project management to make sure that everything gets done.

Not infrequently, what can also happen is that things can bog down, and if a project is not progressing as well as it should, you either have to figure out what you need to do to change that or you simply decide not to go on and you kill the project.

Q: What's an innovation initiative in healthcare that is still out of reach?

DW: There are a number of different things coming that I think will engender a lot of interest among innovators — artificial intelligence, machine-based learning — but we're going slowly in some of those areas. One reason why is that we have to think about how we're going to protect data; privacy is a big issue.

We also have to think about whether or not we have the right orientation in mind: Whatever it is we do with innovation, we have to make the lives of people better. With artificial intelligence, there's still a fair amount to discover, I would say, in terms of how we can actually make people's lives better. It certainly is full of opportunity, but because it could potentially be expensive, we have to think about all those aspects carefully when we start thinking about innovation work.

Q: What is an innovation initiative Mayo has launched that you are especially excited about?

DW: We've launched a number of significant things for Mayo: our Healthy Living program, our entire digital health strategy, the population health strategy — all of those came out of the Center for Innovation. We just recently launched a new patient service program for CAR T therapy, and we are engaged in planning some large hospital projects at our campus in Arizona.

We are thinking about how we visualize data and how we can change the way information is presented from the electronic record. We're thinking about how we can change the way people interact with the electronic record and with technology, so that it's less about actual keyboard entry and more about voice control or other ways to interact with technology.

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

DW: The most important thing is to think about the smallest number of big ideas that you want to work on and then make sure you are marshaling your resources carefully to get the result that you need. And you have to be action-oriented, because there is no innovation without action; there's no innovation without incorporating something, doing something or implementing something that will actually solve the problem.

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