UnityPoint strategy head Kent Lehr runs the innovation team like a startup: 'You cannot be afraid to go all-in'

Kent Lehr is the vice president of strategy and business development at UnityPoint Health, where he also heads up UnityPoint Ventures, the $100 million investment fund the Des Moines, Iowa-based health system launched in May.

Housed within UnityPoint's strategy division is the innovation department, comprising the venture fund and accelerator and incubator programs, all of which sees the health system investing in technology and other solutions to improve the delivery and quality of care. In contrast to many other systems in which innovation is stunted by bureaucracy and a lack of resources, UnityPoint's innovation team has a dedicated operating budget and an innovation-specific governance structure.

UnityPoint's remarkable prioritization of its innovation initiatives has enabled Mr. Lehr to think big: "There are endless opportunities to make healthcare better right now … it can be overwhelming to think about all the ways healthcare could and should improve," he said. "For me, it's less about a single initiative, and more about staying focused on the long game. I want to keep my foot on the gas, and I'm motivated to push forward because there are real people who need us to keep going."

He added, "I want industry players and regulators to help us solve these problems. I want companies like ours to prioritize strong innovation cultures. And I want to nurture teams to take this work to the next level."

Here, Mr. Lehr discusses what UnityPoint is doing to achieve all three of those goals, and why healthcare innovators must take a page out of the startup playbook to become unafraid of failure.

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

Question: What does innovation look like at UnityPoint?

Kent Lehr: UnityPoint Health has a long history of innovation, and over the last two years, we have only reinforced our commitment to innovation by making it one of our strategic priorities as an organization. We know the healthcare industry is changing rapidly, so we have to get creative around solving problems, inventing new capabilities, embracing technology and improving value. To keep UnityPoint Health at the forefront of delivering the products and services our patients want and need, we expanded our innovation program. Our venture fund identifies and sources investment opportunities, while an innovation accelerator ensures that the solutions we invest in are deployed and scaled across our entire footprint. We also maintain an innovation incubator focused on commercializing employee ideas into products and solutions.

Q: What are your goals and priorities for your role?

KL: My goal is to bring in the right leaders with the talent and expertise to partner both internally across our organization and externally to advance the way we take care of people. Creating an innovation program like ours is not always the norm within healthcare, and certainly not part of our organizational past. I knew we needed strong backing from our leadership team to help champion a new approach. I view my role as a connector and enabler: someone who ensures our team members have the support and resources they need to deliver on our collective goals.

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

KL: One of the biggest barriers to healthcare innovation is a lack of both dedicated resources and strong governance structure. These pieces are crucial to ensuring innovations are embraced and adopted more quickly. At UnityPoint Health, we not only have a team dedicated to innovation and an operating budget for funding — we've prioritized a separate governance structure, our Innovation Governance Council, to provide guidance and accelerate the speed of adoption. This multidisciplinary group of clinical and non-clinical leaders is essential to our success; I can't emphasize that enough. They are the ones who help support the innovation team and further align our innovation priorities with overall system strategy. They do it all: remove barriers, provide insights and feedback, lead adoption of new innovations and help prioritize various bodies of work.

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

KL: If your goal is "not to fail," then you probably won't push yourself far enough to succeed. You have to think bigger. I look at our team like a startup. They need support, resources and leeway, and without these, their ideas will die in the typical budget cycle. You cannot be afraid to go all-in and give your teams the best chance at realizing your organization's goals. You also have to focus on culture. You can have the best innovation team, but if your company stifles innovation, it won't work. Embrace doing things differently, and be willing to try new innovations — even those that could ultimately fail or that might not work for 99.9 percent of a patient population or providers.

Q: What's an innovation initiative you're especially excited about? 

KL: Through our venture fund, we've made some exciting investments in companies directly aligned with our care delivery and experience strategies. For example, we now have a stake in a company creating hardware and software solutions to simplify digital pathology workflows and reduce the rate of repeat procedures. This means a patient receives a much more accurate pathology report while they are in the operating room, reducing the probability they might have to go back in for another procedure. This is not only great care delivery, this is a huge patient satisfier for many reasons. It creates an easier, more personal experience.

I'm also really excited about the launch of our Innovation Fellowship program, a yearlong cohort of clinicians with protected time to work in our innovation center. We give these clinicians the tools to learn how to think like entrepreneurs, while also moving the needle on any invention. This program allows us to spread a culture of innovation across UnityPoint Health.

More articles on innovation:
Matter healthcare incubator opens 2nd location in New York City
MedTech Innovator names winner of $350K grand prize
Technology 'cannot be the centerpiece' of innovation, according to Rebecca Kaul, MD Anderson's chief innovation officer

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