The role of culture, quick wins and caregiver involvement in delivering healthcare innovation — 5 takeaways

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Innovating in healthcare is anything but straightforward, and hospital and health system leaders who want to foster innovation often face structural, technological and cultural barriers.

During a roundtable session sponsored by Optum at the Becker's Hospital Review 9th Annual CEO + CFO Roundtable, innovation leaders discussed major challenges that stand in the path of improvement and actions and attitudes that can help to overcome them. The Optum representatives facilitating the roundtable included:

Keith Shah, President, Optum Center for Applied Innovation

Sasha Preble, Chief Operating Officer, Optum Center for Applied Innovation

Russell Davis, Chief Consumer Officer, Optum Advisory Services

Five takeaways:

  1. Translating innovation into better healthcare delivery and outcomes is often extremely difficult. One reason is that many healthcare administrators, especially those working at academic medical centers that run on thin margins, tend to be risk averse. Additionally, even the most basic infrastructure is aging, which creates additional barriers to innovation. Advancing innovation from the research lab to everyday clinical practice is also riddled with difficulty.

    Against such hurdles and with the added pressures of COVID-19, doctors don't have the time and energy to participate in the change processes. "Going forward, we have to figure out how to get physicians more engaged with the organizational structures of healthcare entities," one anesthesiology leader from a large Southern academic medical center said.

  2. Incremental progress is not a dirty word when working to overcome resistance. Although incremental progress is sometimes cast in a negative light compared to disruptive innovation, it has a role in healthcare. If innovating on healthcare issues broadly proves too challenging, leaders can cultivate a more receptive environment through a gradual quick-wins approach. Mr. Davis said discussions at Optum often center around the relative merits of "Big Bang innovations" versus striving for "small yeses" that obtain quick buy-in for incremental progress on operational or patient care objectives.

    Endorsing that vision, an innovation leader from a large national nonprofit health system said, "If you're working in innovation, your job is to get small yeses and make it easy for clinicians to participate." The CEO of a small community hospital in the Southeast concurred, saying it's important to get going on initiatives even if the solutions aren't perfect; don't let perfect be the enemy of good.

  3. Once a path to innovation is established, keeping the momentum and energy going is crucial. When it comes to deployment of innovation, culture is everything. It is incumbent on leaders to spell out how changes and disruptions are linked to higher goals, according to the CEO of an academic medical health center in the Southwest: "You have to communicate a passion for making a difference in the joy of practice, patient experience, patient flow and ultimately bending the cost curve down and the quality curve up." The CEO of an orthopedic practice in the Northeast added that along with innovation comes occasional failure; healthcare organizations can benefit from improving their attitude toward failure documenting performance along the way to know what to look for, and creating a safe space for it.

  4. Seeking patient and caregiver involvement can lead to fresh insights. When a hospital in the Northeast decided to give more insight to family members of rehab patients into how their loved ones were doing, the hospital initially considered the concept of family care conferences but wasn't sure how to organize them. The hospital ended up developing a rehab tracker application, which now serves the dual purpose of relieving family members' anxiety and reducing the number of questions and phone calls that therapists field from worried caregivers. Innovation was born by inviting diverse stakeholders to the conversation and solving their problems in new and different ways.

  5. Innovation is not just a leadership challenge; it must permeate the culture for the entire organization. In most organizations there is an opportunity to drive organization-wide innovation by engaging and deputizing mid-level leaders as innovation champions. This is an important way to empower rising talent. These individuals will bring energy, creativity and tenacity to drive change. Given this responsibility, these ascending leaders will be creative in finding new ways to succeed. Focusing on and empowering mid-level leaders is particularly important at this crucial moment as organizations are facing the great resignation and the ongoing war for talent. Tapping mid-level leaders as innovation champions will produce tangible results for the organization and will play a positive role in creating a culture of innovation.

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