Innovation In Healthcare Exemplified At Henry Ford Health System
Larry Myler Contributor

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Innovation In Healthcare Exemplified At Henry Ford Health System

Detroit has had its difficulties, but there are many signs of a comeback. One organization that’s leading the way in Motor City is Henry Ford Health System, founded one hundred years ago by the automotive innovator of the same name. I recently had the pleasure of spending a couple of days at the Henry Ford Innovation Institute, a facet of the Henry Ford Health Systems Innovations program, and was able to observe first-hand what it takes to create new value in an industry (and city) that can benefit from it. Here are some of the major components that breathe life into Henry Ford Innovations’ efforts. How can you learn from this successful example?

Commitment and Support from Senior Leadership

The Innovations program got its start nearly three years ago as a response from Henry Ford’s leadership to what they saw as a challenging future for the healthcare industry.  By leveraging all of the system’s assets, the leadership recognized that the institution could create new solutions that specifically addressed some of healthcare’s major looming challenges , leading to many direct and indirect benefits for the system.

Nancy Schlichting, CEO of Henry Ford Health System, has adopted a refreshing leadership philosophy. “The most important word is yes,” explains Schlichting. “It is difficult to create a culture of innovation.  If you shut down one person you shut down everyone, because bad news travels fast. When it comes to innovation, my mantra is yes.”

Henry Ford Health System President and COO Robert Riney wants to make this effort foundational. “If innovation isn’t in our DNA how can we organize and take advantage of it?” asks Riney. “That’s why we started the Henry Ford Innovations program and created the Institute to carry it out—we have put in place a system that has demystified the innovation process for our workforce.”

Mark Coticchia, VP and Chief Innovation Officer, understands the level of commitment necessary to make innovation flourish, as well as the benefits that can accrue when it works. “We are in the early stages of a long-term strategy, but it’s worth the effort. By getting this right, we will be able to enhance the experiences of patients, donors and future recruits—and our reputation will continue to improve.”

Changing Culture Through Accessible Opportunities

Leadership support is important, but another driver of employee engagement for innovation is creating meaningful and accessible opportunities to participate. During my second day onsite I was able to attend the final judging phase of a competition seeking clinical applications for the growing field of wearable technology.  The competition was part of an ongoing innovation challenge program, intended to create a channel for getting employees involved in the innovation process, and to draw out new solutions to some of healthcare’s biggest unsolved problems.  There were five finalists drawn from a field of thirty teams, all with interesting ideas about the future of wearable innovations. The challenge awarded $10,000 in total prizes to winners. Here’s how the finalists fared:

  • Grand Prize Winner:  Acute Care Mobility - Gwen Gnam, RN MSN and Dr. Ilan Rubinfeld

System designed to record and encourage mobility of acute care patients in the inpatient setting, utilizing wearable activity trackers

  • Second Place Winner:  MiROM - Dr. Robert Keller and Dr. Nicholas Frisch – Recovery tool for total hip replacement, intended to monitor and limit range of motion during rehab using wearable sensors
  • Third Place Winner:  Sweet Dreams - Dr. Suraj Raheja – Monitoring and alert system for nocturnal hypoglycemia
  • Other Finalists:
  1. Healthaze - Dr. Hemant Shah and Dr. David Allard – A health and wellness reminder system for elderly patients, utilizing location based sensors and smart watches
  2. HealthPet - Dr. Zachary Delproposto and Dr. David Parrish – A mobile game interface powered by activity trackers designed to encourage exercise and combat childhood obesity

The potential for cash awards is not the biggest driver of participation; many participants say they would do it even if there was no prize, because for them it’s about the experience and access to the program. However, it doesn’t hurt, and some winners plan on using their winnings to support product development work.

The idea of employee support and inclusion extends all the way to their generous intellectual property policy, which offers a 50% share of future revenues that come from product ideas that end up in the market. This practice underscores the seriousness of the call to innovate, and certainly gets the attention of those who might have something to offer.

Overcoming Fear of Failure

Any organization wishing to encourage more participation from its workforce will have to help its members overcome fear and feel comfortable stepping into the unknown. When I asked a focus group at Henry Ford what had kept them from innovating in the past, fear came through as a basic theme. Here are their responses:

  • “I was scared my ideas would be stolen”
  • “I had no idea what the first step was, and didn’t want to look foolish”
  • “I was worried I wouldn’t have time to work on this without jeopardizing my job”
  • “I was afraid of failing”

These are common fears that plague innovation initiatives in most organizations. However, HFHS has been making the shift toward a more user-friendly and less intimidating methodology for innovation. One way they have accomplished this is through a problem-solving approach.

Because most healthcare professionals at their core want to help people, serving patients is a major impetus for change. Dr. Dee Dee Wang, is a Staff Cardiologist at Henry Ford who works in Advanced Structural Heart Imaging. “We have a dire need to help patients and save lives. We must invent the next technology for the patients who need it,” reports Dr. Wang. This compelling desire to improve longevity and quality of life is often all that is needed to overcome fear, and in Dr. Wang’s case it has been a force behind a breakthrough method for more accurately sizing artificial heart valves and planning trans-catheter surgeries using 3D-printed models from CT scans. Dr. Wang has been collaborating with Dr. William O’Neill in this work.

Other innovations have come about at Henry Ford out of the need to better serve patients. Stat Chat, a patient-centered communication system that allows everyone who touches a patient to see what others have done, is Dr. Ogochukwu Azuh and Dr. Peter Adams answer to a cumbersome and inefficient pager-based system that was not working well.  The concept was developed during their fellowship year at the Innovation Institute, which introduced them to the creative process.  Another project born out of the need to better serve patients is the Virtual Nurse, championed by Dr. Adnan Munkarah and the nursing team in Women’s Health.  This system uses avatar technology to help patients better understand the large amounts of information delivered to them at discharge after child birth, allowing the nurses to focus more on areas where patients need more assistance.

These days, if there is a persistent problem that is hurting or hindering patients at Henry Ford, there will likely be a solution devised by an innovative employee.

Thinking about Hospitals Differently

Innovation doesn’t start and stop at the research and inventions of physicians.  As one of the largest fully integrated health care systems in the country, Henry Ford considers the entire system to be an intellectual asset.   A major focus has been figuring out ways that the Innovations program can tap into the know-how of Henry Ford employees to help accelerate the development of new technologies both inside and outside the System.  Having five hospitals, a wholly owned insurer, an employed physician model and myriad outpatient, home health, and community resources, all united as a single system, Henry Ford sees itself as the ideal test bed for both startups and major corporations alike.  This novel approach to corporate partnership is accelerating the development of new products and services across a whole range of specialties, and is opening doors for employees to participate in the innovation process whether they have their own invention or not.

To use the parlance of the Motor City, hospitals are much more than factories for making sick people well; they are engines of innovation that are driving exciting new technologies forward every day.  In Henry Ford Health System’s case, they are also major assets for helping a city like Detroit forge a new economic future.

What could innovation do to help transform your company, workforce and city?

Larry Myler is an adjunct professor in the Rollins Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology at BYU.

lmyler@bymonday.com