Academic Medical Centers – New Space for Innovation?

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Having recently attended the EmTech MIT Conference, I started asking myself, what do we mean by innovation in healthcare? This conference showcased some of the greatest and most promising emerging technologies over the next few years. However as inspiring as it was to learn from leading thinkers, it provided me with some food for thought – how can we bring more of this mindset to healthcare? Healthcare in general, due to its complexity, is often considered a laggard rather than a leader when it comes to innovation and change management.  But with the resources, infrastructure and funding available to us in healthcare – it perplexes me – why is this?

Recently I was part of a team that organized a ‘hackathon’ event at Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH). The event which is part of the new innovation center (iHub) being launched at the hospital demonstrated that there are many people in healthcare including clinicians and nurses who have disruptive ideas that can change the way we think about healthcare delivery. However what inhibits their disruptive thinking and ambition is the lack of a conducive system and poor infrastructure in place. Healthcare still remains a very silo operated industry. For this to change we need to encourage more cross fertilization of ideas with people from  outside the healthcare space – designers, developers, engineers and scientists – so that fresh perspectives are brought to the table and can contribute towards the development of sustainable and realistic solutions.

Ideation, execution and implementation are on a spectrum and resources need to be provided at each point to overcome the challenges. The hackathon at BWH for example was one aspect of this. However the momentum needs to continue from such events and one needs to cultivate an environment where innovation is encouraged. This gets to my main point.

Academic medical centers (AMCs) like BWH are well placed to develop infrastructures that can support and foster this innovation. This can be in the form of space, grants, mentors, seminars, teaching, brainstorming sessions and events like the hackathon. However one of the biggest challenge startups face in the innovation space is access to patients and data and this is the uniqueness that AMCs can provide with their networks, community hospitals and primary care practices. With the access and space, teams can pilot their solutions, collect data and if successful scale their ideas.

I am involved in a project where we are working with a local community health center to solve one of their problems – a pain point that involves children not taking their controller inhalers and therefore presenting to clinic late and likely to be admitted to hospital. The initiative, through the Center of Primary Care at Harvard Medical School, gives us access to the community population and their data and therefore a space to pilot our work. We work closely with staff and patients to develop a solution for them. By being engaged from the start, staff and patients develop a greater sense of ownership over the solution and therefore will have a greater tendency to use the product which makes this is a sustainable exercise.

In general, no institution wants to move forward with a healthcare idea if there is a lack of evidence or outcomes that show the technology or innovation to be safe and effective with proven benefits. So how does one proceed with this? What incentives do changemakers have to work in healthcare and develop solutions if they do not have the access to pilot? This remains a challenge that we must overcome and Dzau et al (2013)[i] highlight this in that, “…AMCs can cultivate innovation by teaching it, creating “space” for and supporting it, and providing opportunities for its implementation.”

In addition to engaging employees and creating a culture of innovation, the development of infrastructures provides an opportunity to grow new streams of revenue through licensing and commercialization opportunities for AMCs. We have seen this pattern across multiple centers in the US, but now we need more institutions to take this approach.

We are at the intersection of disruption and healthcare reform and this provides AMCs and its networks to make innovation more of an ‘inside in’ process rather than a completely ‘outside in’ process. Let us remove the segregation, the silos and the departmentalization. Healthcare disruption will come from the bottom up, from professionals and employees working on the front line together as teams with one focus – patients. The leadership just needs to provide them with the space and infrastructure and let the magic happen.


[i] Dzau et al (2013), ‘Fostering Innovation in Medicine and Health Care: What Must Academic Health Centers Do?’ Academic Medicine, Vol. 88, No. 10 / October 2013

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Harpreet is currently a Deland Fellow at the Brigham and Women's Hospital (BWH), a teaching hospital for Harvard Medical School. Harpreet recently graduated with a MPH from the Harvard School of Public Health where he focused on Health Policy. Harpreet qualified from King’s College School of Medicine in London and during this time there, he also spent a year at Imperial College Business School studying Medical Sciences with Management. On completion of medical school, he secured an Academic Foundation Program clinical training post with a research interest in medical education at the North East Thames Deanery, NHS. Here he conducted research under the auspices of Professor Michael Roberts, Dean of Students at Bart’s Medical School and he was able to design and deliver a course on 'Leadership and Quality' for medical students. During his time at BWH, he will continue his research and projects on improving the delivery of healthcare service via his interest in healthcare quality and safety, medical informatics, innovation and medical education. Twitter: @hssood