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What Makes an Innovative Academic Medical Center?
Penn Researchers and Leader Describe Key Activities and Factors
Academic medical centers are known for being innovation hubs. LDI Senior Fellow Ingrid Nembhard oversaw a study led by Penn Medicine and Wharton graduate Elana Meer that investigated successful health care innovation management. They interviewed directors at academic medical centers recognized for innovations about what led to their successes.
We asked the authors and LDI Senior Fellow Raina Merchant, Penn Medicine Chief Transformation Officer, about what they learned.
Drs. Nembhard and Meer, what was the motivation for this study?
Calls for greater creativity and innovations that improve frontline care are commonplace but COVID-19 added urgency for fast, impactful changes—think of the rapid advances in telehealth, for example. Many frontline innovations even before the pandemic were developed in academic medical centers—they’re hubs for creative solutions and implementation strategies around clinical processes, information technology, digital health, and medical devices. We observed that innovation centers at different institutions generate ideas and implement innovation in various ways, though. To understand what makes efforts to transform care work, we explored what factors impede, promote and predict greater success of frontline innovation by interviewing leaders of academic medical centers recognized for innovation
What were your main findings regarding successful innovation centers?
Innovation occurred under centralized, multicenter, or department-level organizational models but regardless of the model, seven activities were crucial:
- Sourcing ideas, mainly from leaders and frontline staff who know needs or see opportunities (e.g., to reduce gaps in process flows).
- Developing ideas (e.g., by collaborating with stakeholders).
- Implementing innovations (e.g., when, where to launch, who leads).
- Fundraising (e.g., internal funding and grants).
- Forming partnerships (e.g., for funding, access to new technology).
- Measuring success.
- Managing the mindset to inspire, engage, and encourage.
Any more specific guidance based on your findings?
Innovation center leaders should consider how best their center can perform each of the key activities given their own context, and if innovations are addressing an identified problem. Many innovations are possible. The ones that will have robust engagement for success across the key activities that we identified will meet a need for patients and/or care providers, and leverage multidisciplinary, multilevel collaboration.
When thinking about your innovation center, consider what type of organizational model best fits your institution. This may affect how you achieve widespread implementation. Different centers do the same key activities in different ways.
Knowing similarities and differences in how innovative academic medical centers perform activities and overcome challenges informs practice and sets the stage for additional theory and research on frontline innovation management.
Dr. Merchant, innovation is in your portfolio of work at Penn Medicine. What activities do you see as most essential and how do you approach them?
Through innovative approaches to early testing and experimentation, we learn what works and what doesn’t in a structured, focused manner. An important component is implementation and scale. It’s also useful to devote resources to taking lessons learned in a pilot phase to develop programs and initiatives that can be scaled across the health system. An essential element is receiving support from the executive leadership team and CEO to ground the work in the highest priority areas and support out-of-the-box approaches to challenges and embrace transformational change. This can include changing culture, practices, and policies. Regular input and engagement by staff and clinician leaders are vital for empowering teams, getting buy-in, and a willingness to change the status quo for seemingly intractable problems.
What advice do you have about performing the core innovation activities?
- Engage a diverse, interdisciplinary, intergenerational team with different skill sets and backgrounds. Our team thrives with individuals representing medicine, nursing, engineering, communications, design, research, business, tech, and other fields. Different life experiences and life stages create a rich learning and collaborative environment where new ideas can be identified and tested.
- Be willing to fail fast and early to avoid significant investments in areas that won’t scale. Be disciplined with defined go/no-go checkpoints. Identifying key outcome metrics up front helps evaluate progress and determine when to pivot or further invest.
- Identify key internal stakeholders with institutional knowledge to define the problem and test solutions.
- Identify key external stakeholders who may represent tech, retail, or others who help understand an audience, engage staff and patients, reach broader communities, and scale across populations.
The study, Pursuing Innovation in Academic Medical Centers: Models, Activities, and Influential Factors, was published in Health Care Management Review in February 2023. Authors are Elana Meer, Iman Ezzeddine, Jessica Chao, and Ingrid Nembhard.
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