Health care organizations are looking for innovative ways to advance care, engage patients and streamline workflows for busy providers. In the search for fresh perspectives, many leadership teams are turning an eye inward for launching innovative projects. For example, Intermountain Healthcare, Kaiser Permanente and Providence Health & Services are improving clinical and financial metrics through in-house innovation centers that bring ideas from clinical staff into the fold.

Innovation initiatives at Intermountain are almost exclusively physician-led. The health system looks for cost control opportunities at the point of care, and those efforts have paid off. The system’s clinician-built ProComp program raises awareness of how variations in procedure staffing and supplies impact patient outcomes and overall care costs. That innovation produced more than $90 million in savings for the health system.

Toward similar ends, Kaiser sees technical innovation as a cornerstone of survival in health care’s evolution as a consumer demand-driven market. The health network has experimented with user-friendly patient engagement technologies and complex care tech centers, with one such center netting the organization a 50 percent decrease in emergency department visits.

While Kaiser focuses on patient retention through convenience-oriented tech advancements, Providence has set its sights on improving efficiency through innovation. “Intrapreneurs” from the health network’s Innovation Fellowship program spend eight hours a week for one year working on an improvement project where they have access to data, informatics staff and dedicated funding. Employees participate in online voting to identify the most promising proposals. To date, 26 pilot projects have been funded, resulting in an estimated cost savings of $2.8 million.

Taking a cue from established innovators

Health care organizations that invest in innovative projects can improve health care delivery and operational efficiencies and increase satisfaction of both physicians and patients. Intermountain, Kaiser and Providence’s programs have several elements in common for achieving these goals:

  • A culture that promotes the free exchange of ideas.
  • An emphasis on internal cross-functional collaboration.
  • An openness to external expertise.

Their achievements highlight the important role executive governance and structure play in accommodating and advancing innovative thinking in health care. These leadership teams have institutionalized innovation practices throughout their respective facilities by formalizing governance and program structures.

Creating a culture that supports innovation

Establishing a work culture that inspires innovation starts with executive buy-in. Cultivating a corporate infrastructure that supports the open exchange of ideas is a responsibility of management. The innovation itself can’t just come from the top down, however. The search for new solutions should include people working on the front lines of care.

A practical approach to launching innovation programs should include:

  • Routine, cross-department meeting opportunities that promote collaboration between technical and clinical teams.
  • Online employee idea submission and voting mechanisms to make participation easy.
  • Toolkits and/or guidelines that employees can use to properly evaluate ideas.
  • Funding support for vetted projects.
  • Dedicated staff and technology resources.
  • Ongoing, organizationwide touch points to inform, involve and inspire staff.

Even smaller health care organizations can adopt a similar approach to launch their own programs by starting small and scaling efforts up over time. And if they don’t have the funding or the mechanism to invest in innovation, they can partner with larger systems, as Sparrow Hospital in Lansing, Mich., chose to do with Mayo Clinic.

Health care organizations of any size can engage passionate employees as advocates to promote an innovation program. Leaders can include innovation in organizational performance measures and as a category in employees’ performance evaluations to drive program support. Leaders can also embrace new technologies and processes for idea assessment and pilot program adoption — refining initiation, prototyping and rollout procedures as they go.

Other industries have embraced “divergent collaboration,” a successful model that brings together experts from other industries with diverse backgrounds to foster new ways of thinking. Collaboration of this type may help kick-start efforts for health care as well.

Prioritizing the best ideas to invest in

All innovation projects should be rooted in meeting the organization’s goals to improve outcomes, establish greater efficiency and reduce costs in care delivery. Return on investment can be measured in dollars saved or earned, physician and/or patient satisfaction and clinical achievements.

Leaders must bear several points in mind when evaluating return on investment:

  • Establish specific measurements when developing pilot plans so that progress can be quickly and regularly assessed.
  • Adopt a "fast failure" and "rapid expansion" mindset: If something is failing, abandon it promptly. If another project is succeeding, rapidly adopt and expand to other areas.
  • Educate employees on selecting value-added innovations to continue to improve the project as it evolves.

Not all ideas will be fruitful. Some may face rollout expense barriers or legal challenges. Putting clear goals, measures and expense caps in place ensures that projects are vetted with business objectives top-of-mind each step of the way.

Internal innovation teams can be pivotal in uncovering and addressing opportunities for efficiencies that may be hidden in the day-to-day work of care delivery. Even patients can be resources for new ideas on how to improve satisfaction and engagement practices. Building a corporate culture of listening — to providers and patients alike — and investing in related innovations will help health care organizations stay strong and reputable under value-based care and in the minds and eyes of increasingly empowered patients.

Peyman Zand is a partner at Pivot Point Consulting, Brentwood, Tenn. 

The opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the policy of the American Hospital Association.