Why Health Systems Will Cultivate the Next Wave of Big Innovations in Health Care

Incubation of groundbreaking ideas often happens at small startups, and Silicon Valley has become synonymous with innovative entrepreneurism that has transformed how we communicate and put powerful digital tools literally in the palm of our hand. 

Major health systems may not conjure quite the same images, as the size and complexity of these tradition-bound institutions can complicate decision-making and slow efforts to innovate. But large health systems are, in many ways, ideal ecosystems for innovation and can be prime testing grounds for technologies and approaches that could revolutionize how health care is practiced.

Large health systems offer a range of expertise, resources and health care settings under one roof — from urgent care to state-of-the-art facilities, primary care offices to academic medical centers, and sometimes their own insurance plan. This unique ecosystem can provide the perfect place to evaluate, refine and validate new methods, products and services across various types of care and services. 

Known and trusted in their communities, health systems have relationships with area residents, physicians and businesses  that can all be vital partners in evaluating and rolling out innovations that could revolutionize how health care is delivered. As testing labs, health systems have the potential to quickly move an idea to proof of value and ultimately to improved care and better patient experience. 

The need for health care to rethink traditional models is enormous and increasingly urgent. Health care costs have risen dramatically in recent years, but outcomes for patients have not improved at the same pace. Health systems have a clear opportunity to fill this role if they make the necessary investment in new skills, programs, talent, values and partners to fuel innovation. 

Anything that could improve the patient experience, quality of care, access or cost of care is a target for innovation. Better use of data, including artificial intelligence, could make patients’ and families’ interactions with their health care system much more efficient and personalized and could have benefits for treatment and outcomes. A number of interesting developments in digital assistants suggest they are becoming powerful tools to help customers navigate health care more easily and with greater focus on the most important things for their health.

Health systems need to make innovation a strategic priority and a disciplined focus. Essential to this will be changing their model for innovation, from disconnected initiatives to a single enterprise-wide function that can align the most valuable avenues for substantial innovation, uncover and cultivate the best ideas, and move them to fruition sooner.

This change will help to break the cycle of “pilot-itis” where ideas move around in the organization as pilot projects, with no way to holistically determine their value and decide to stop the work or move it forward. It will help to connect the dots of various innovations to see ways to achieve a bigger impact.

One example of this from Banner’s experience is the use of telehealth services for digital triage, check-in and registration for emergency room patients. This innovation unites chatbot and tele-triage technology in a way that can fundamentally improve the ER experience for patients, as well as the quality of care, while lowering costs.

Fostering innovation will take collaboration. Health systems alone are not enough. Internal and external partners are essential parts of the team needed to spark and develop innovation that benefits the partners and, more importantly, those served by the health system. New, non-traditional partnerships will help catalyze promising concepts and advance them to practical, results-driven evaluation.

Fertile partnerships may develop between health systems and startups, community organizations, university innovation centers and large tech companies. Together, these partners can design, assess and iterate new approaches based on feedback from actual customers in real-life settings.

For innovation programs to bring the best ideas to the surface, they need rigor in their process for vetting ideas as well as support to scale them across markets. This change will require new skills and new roles: design thinking, digital experts and insights from other industries such as retail. The decision to move forward with an innovation must be based on measured value to the health system, its workforce and the patients and families it serves.

Ultimately, purposeful innovations will benefit the health care system as a whole, as new approaches and tools deliver better care and a better experience for patients around the country.


Scott Nordlund is chief strategy and growth officer for Banner Health, based in Phoenix, Ariz.

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