Innovation is much more than just using new tech

By Jonah Comstock
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Innovation is one of the most sought after things in healthcare, but it’s also one of the most poorly understood, according to experts presenting at the Digital and Personal Connected Health conference Monday at HIMSS18.

“The term innovation loses so much meaning, and one of the meanings that it gets is ‘It’s innovation if it uses products designed by Apple,’” Dr. David Asch, executive director at the Penn Medicine Center for Health Care Innovation, said in his keynote address. “Many of us love Apple products because of the design, but I’ve heard too many people say ‘We’re doing innovation because we’re using iPads.’”

Even outside of Apple, the assumption that all innovation needs to be technological is a problematic one.

“I think technology for technology’s sake is a mistake,” Luis Castillo, president and CEO of Ensocare, said on a leadership panel. “If you’re automating a bad process it’s still a bad process.”

Instead, Asch said, innovation needs to be undertaken the way hospitals take on research.

“Innovation is like research,” he said. “It’s hypothesis-driven, it’s falsifiable and it’s highly disciplined.”

One problem that many organizations have innovating is they don’t recognize that step one is to identify the problem.

“Often we are solving for the wrong problem, and if we solved for the right problem we might be in a better position to address our customers’ needs,” Asch said. “Until you identify the problem you fundamentally want to solve, you can innovate in the wrong direction.”

That means questioning fundamental assumptions. For instance, his hospital’s neonatal unit was trying to solve the problem of how to get babies to incubators faster. But by reframing the question as ‘how to keep babies warm’, the department was able to come up with a cheap and effective solution of insulated sleeping bags that babies can use while they wait for an incubator.

Similarly, by questioning the assumption that a primary care physician has to be involved in hypertension management, they were able to create a more efficient system that used registered nurses, home blood pressure monitoring, and text messaging.

Dr. Gregory Weidner, medical director of primary care innovation and proactive health at Atrium Health (formerly Carolinas Health System), and Ann-Somers Hogg, Atrium’s director of innovation, said that truly disruptive innovation only works if a company is willing to innovate its whole business model.

“A lot of what we [as an industry] have done is tried to bolt new entities onto existing models — with very mixed results” Weidner said. He used the example of building new wings onto old houses. “There’s a limit to how much you can keep bolting onto something before it becomes unsafe or unappealing aesthetically. It is challenging because there’s a lot to redesign.”

Hogg added that in order to build a successful disruptive innovation unit, companies need to create not just a separate unit, but an autonomous unit that can pursue the best solution, even if it threatens the status quo.

“It’s critical to set up an autonomous business unit outside of the organization,” she said. “The reason it is so critical to separate out this potential disruption is, if you leave something that has the potential to disrupt in the core organization, the core organization will crush it.”