Health Care Needs Innovation: 3 Key Approaches

Companies working to make the health care system work better for patients and health plan members must embrace a culture and processes that fuel innovation.

An artist illustrates ideas generated around the theme of innovation.

Innovation applies novel thinking to solve problems or improve upon the status quo. Health care presents many opportunities for both.

The health care industry is also in flux — payment arrangements are changing and curveballs come from Washington, D.C., almost weekly. Few people would describe it as stable.

Those conditions make innovation more important than ever, according to David Burkus, best-selling author of The Myths of Creativity: The Truth About How Innovative Companies and People Generate Great Ideas and associate professor of leadership and innovation at Oral Roberts University.

“The solution to instability is often innovation and creativity,” Burkus says.

Burkus was a guest speaker at a recent company event showcasing innovation hosted by the innovation and engagement team for the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Plans of Illinois, Montana, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas. The event celebrated the role of innovation in driving improvements in health care and insurance to ultimately benefit members’ health and well-being.

Innovation in health care may improve the patient experience, make the system more efficient or help shift the industry’s focus to keeping people healthy in addition to caring for them when they’re sick, among other possibilities.

But to accomplish any of this, the industry must create and nurture a culture and the processes that fuel innovation: encouraging ideas from throughout an organization; assembling teams empowered to pursue “crazy ideas” and exchanging ideas and expertise with outside sources.

Everyone is an innovator

Thinking creatively to solve problems or improve the status quo shouldn’t be delegated to one group of people or solely those who self-identify as a creative person, Burkus says. “Creativity is everyone’s job.”

David Schonthal, a portfolio director at IDEO and professor of innovation and entrepreneurship at Kellogg School of Management, expressed a similar sentiment. “You’re all designers,” he told attendees at the same event. “All of us actually have the ability to be creative and be design-oriented; it just takes a couple of techniques, frameworks and tricks to bring it out of us.”

Schonthal teaches design thinking — a process of creative problem-solving that involves evaluating the needs of humans first instead of assuming what the needs are. Solutions are better tailored to the problem at hand if you fully understand the user’s perspective.

It’s imperative for everyone in health care — nurses, doctors, hospital executives, academics, data scientists and others — to start thinking they too are capable of creativity and that they bring something valuable to the table, he says.

Two innovation experts explain why design thinking should play a role in health care innovation.


Innovating in teams

While anyone can think creatively and innovate, that doesn’t mean you should do it alone.

A common misunderstanding around creativity is that innovation is a solo effort; Burkus calls it the Lone Creator Myth. It’s the idea that one person — like Steve Jobs or Thomas Edison — is solely responsible for big, world-changing ideas. In reality, “creativity is a team sport,” Burkus says, and it takes teams to build on a great idea and bring it to fruition.

When working together on a project, team members need to be wary of writing off an idea as “too crazy to work.” “It’s important not to pass judgement too quickly,” Schonthal says. “Make sure wild ideas have a voice … [and that] people feel safe to bring crazy ideas into the room.”

Team-based innovating in practice

Staff at the five Blue Cross and Blue Shield Plans use design thinking in a team environment on a daily basis.

Creative ideas come from multiple sources. In addition to participating in hackathons and joining a grassroots innovation network, employees are encouraged to pitch their ideas using an online portal. These crowdsourced concepts are voted on and combined with other pitches, and those with the highest potential are graduated to the company’s incubator. Employees with novel ideas work with the innovation and engagement team to connect with innovation specialists from inside and outside the company. The company’s team-based design thinking approach enables employees to rapidly design, prototype, test and pilot their solutions with health plan members and providers.

Make sure wild ideas have a voice.

The C1 Innovation Lab® in Dallas, which opened in August 2017, is now the primary place where the company engages national employers. The C1 design team examines the challenges members face at their work sites and then collaborates with clients to co-create and design new solutions that help improve the health care experience for members.

Kevin Cassidy, president of enterprise national accounts for the five Blue Cross and Blue Shield Plans, says the lab is an open space that allows its design team to collaborate with large employers to test and pilot solutions to real problems that will improve care quality and reduce health care costs. “We can come to decisions a little more quickly, a little more creatively,” he says, “and if it isn’t a good idea, we can come to that conclusion quickly and move on before investing a lot of time and money in it.”

Cross-field mentoring for the greater good

Teams are beneficial in the innovation process, but taking it to the next level — bringing together people from all over health care to provide expertise to entrepreneurs trying to make change — may also produce innovative results.

MATTER, a health tech incubator in Chicago, is one space specifically designed to make this happen, says CEO Steve Collens. MATTER’s members range from tiny startups to universities and large corporations, but they’re all focused on one thing: finding creative solutions to health care’s problems.

“We have startup members, we have large companies that are members, and we do an enormous amount of … trying to put the right people together with the right people, focused on the right problems, to really advance solutions faster,” Collens says.

MATTER has various mentor programs that formalize the innovation process, gathering entrepreneurs with health care experts like payers, pharmaceutical companies, academia and provider organizations to help them develop their ideas and launch their solutions and eventually launch viable businesses. In fact, as a platinum partner with MATTER, experts from the five Blue Cross and Blue Shield Plans participate in on-site mentoring programs as well as roundtable discussions and engagement activities at the health tech incubator.

“We’ve been able to facilitate a number of collaborations between entrepreneurs and bigger institutions,” Collens says, and “bring projects to market that are really solving interesting problems and doing it in creative ways.”

When everyone in health care is empowered to think creatively, share ideas and expertise with others and feels comfortable innovating in teams, it may lead to groundbreaking new ideas that build efficiencies, improve care quality and ultimately improve the health and well-being of members.


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