Technology 'cannot be the centerpiece' of innovation, according to Rebecca Kaul, MD Anderson's chief innovation officer

For many, the word innovation immediately conjures images of futuristic, cutting-edge technology, but at the Houston-based University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, the focus instead is on the people at the heart of that innovation.

As Rebecca Kaul, MD Anderson's chief innovation officer, explained, while the center is no stranger to developing and deploying high-tech solutions to improve care quality and outcomes, that process begins and ends with the patients in mind.

This approach, therefore, necessitates an innovation team sourced from far beyond the IT department: Ms. Kaul's team comprises experts in strategy, business, design and industry, at well as the requisite technology professionals. "We believe innovation is an interdisciplinary function that is more about the mindset of the individual than the technical skills," she said.

Here, Ms. Kaul discusses MD Anderson's innovation initiatives — and the challenges to implementation — and explains why human interaction will always outperform any shiny new technology.

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

Question: What does innovation look like at MD Anderson?

Rebecca Kaul: Innovation departments vary across organizations. For example, the focus can vary from revenue generation to commercialization to technology development. Innovation at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center is all about our mission to end cancer. This means impacting our patients in meaningful ways is the most important goal. We approach this by starting with strategy development, then designing the optimal experience, and only then finding the novel technology to enable that experience.

Q: What is an innovation initiative you are especially excited about? 

RK: We have designed an end-to-end experience for both our patients and providers to leverage innovative technology and methods to create an environment of high-touch care that is personalized and convenient with the best, targeted treatment available. Many innovations enable this vision, ranging from personalized care pathways to virtual care, machine learning-driven optimized operations, patient-centric communication platforms and wide-scale data analytics.

Q: What are some barriers to healthcare innovation? How do you overcome these obstacles?

RK: Having led innovation in a couple of organizations, the consistent theme, no matter how different the model, is that the barriers are more internal than external. There is an abundance of innovative solutions available; the challenge is navigating the internal organization to gather consensus on a vision and commitment to see that vision through to reality. Anything innovative and transformational will be hard, will cut across many areas for an enterprise impact and will require discipline outside of the normal scope of people's jobs. It is critical to align all of the constituents around the vision to ensure a successful implementation across operations, facilities, process and technology.

Q: What is the biggest mistake players in the healthcare industry are making when it comes to innovation?

RK: The most common mistake I see is people leading with technology. Technology is an enabler to transformation, but cannot be the centerpiece. The human experience needs to be understood and designed; technology enables a better experience, but does not replace the human interaction in situations where people need it most (like when they are diagnosed with cancer).

More articles on innovation:
Viewpoint: 5 innovation myths that slow progress
New Northwestern center will study the science of scientific innovation
Why University Hospitals launched an investment arm and how it plans to disrupt in the future

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