Featured Article Innovating from the Outside In: U.S. Hospitals Look Beyond Healthcare for Innovation

A growing number of hospitals and healthcare organizations have set up formal internal innovation centers and, unlike in the past, are increasingly looking to other industries for inspiration when innovating.

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Innovation, defined loosely, is the application of existing knowledge—whether recent or established—in new and useful ways. Healthcare has always drawn on scientific advances to improve and innovate. At the same time, though, when looking for ways to improve, it has tended to focus within itself—or on closely associated fields like biology.

Christi Zuber—lead, innovation and design, at Kaiser Permanente, and founder of its internal Innovation Consultancy—notes that hospitals tend to prioritize, rightly, risk avoidance and protection, be it of patient safety, data security or compliance standards. These patterns, however, may stifle the willingness to explore beyond the confines of healthcare, e.g., seeking process improvements.

Looking solely within healthcare for inspiration, however, will probably not meet the needs of modern hospitals. Lori Turner, chief marketing, innovation and experience officer at Beacon Health System—an Indiana-based health system—explains that with “consumerism on the rise [in healthcare], the need to look at other industries has increased.”

Change is coming

A growing number of hospitals and health groups have set up formal internal innovation centers, groups or functions. The trend is recent, with most appearing after 2010,1 but not yet widespread. For example, The Innovation Learning Network, an organization-based membership network for innovation in healthcare, includes innovators from only about two dozen hospitals and health systems.2

Ms. Zuber notes that while Kaiser’s Innovation Consultancy was unusual in the industry when founded in 2003, “People have begun to find that [innovation] is important. These centers are still not found in every organization, but their use is picking up speed.”

Ms. Turner adds that such innovation often focuses on areas where hospitals have been slow to innovate: “We are now seeing more of a focus on how hospitals can innovate their business processes, as opposed to just new medicines or procedures, so care is surrounded by the most graceful processes possible.”

Learning from other industries

Innovation centers and functions can play diverse roles, with many integrating a search for ideas from other industries into hospital innovation processes. According to a 2015 survey, 75% of healthcare provider innovation centers use “Other Industries” as sources of potential innovation—the second most common answer to that question.3 “Sometimes things make more sense in another industry. It opens up your mind because you are not thinking about the limitations of your own environment,” explains Ms. Turner.

Sometimes things make more sense in another industry. It opens up your mind because you are not thinking about the limitations of your own environment.

One of the early successes of Kaiser’s Innovation Consultancy, a 2007-2008 project, illustrates that valuable insights can come from unexpected places, Ms. Zuber believes. The health group asked its consultancy to investigate a perennial problem at hospitals—medication errors. The project team’s initial study found that most mistakes occurred when nurses were interrupted while preparing and dispensing medication.

The team, says Ms. Zuber, “thought about other industries that might have similar challenges,” conducting site visits at different kinds of companies, including an airline. Plane crews, the team found, have a similar need to focus intensely on a specific task during take-off and landing—the two most dangerous times of any flight. Accordingly, the aviation industry has created the concept of the “sterile cockpit,” i.e., during these key periods the only communications permitted are those related to getting into the air or landing safely.

Kaiser adopted the concept, using different ways to signal that nurses were not to be interrupted because they were preparing or dispensing medications. These included simple but effective communication tools, such as red tape box outline on the floor where the nurse would stand and a “No Interruption Wear” sash worn while dispensing drugs.

10 to 15% of the Innovation Consultancy's new ideas now come from outside healthcare.

Pilot studies showed a more than doubling—from 33% to 78%—in the percentage of nurses following the entire, established medication protocol. It also led to the medication process speeding up, on average, by 15%. Implementation of these standards across the Kaiser system, says Ms. Zuber, has led to a drop in medication errors.

This early example of Kaiser looking to another industry for ideas is far from the only one. Ms. Zuber estimates that 10-15% of the Innovation Consultancy’s new ideas now come from outside healthcare.

Other examples of looking to other industries for sources of innovation: For a project on reducing needle stick-related injuries, the Innovation Hub at Johns Hopkins Sibley Memorial Hospital studied how the National Zoo minimizes animal bites among reptile handlers. It also looked at how workers at Chipotle Mexican Grill avoid cutting their fingers when slicing food.4 The Cleveland Clinic’s Medical Innovation Pavilion runs challenges with cash rewards for outside inventors, hoping they can address innovation challenges that the hospital hasn’t resolved.

The advent of Innovisits

Beacon Health System has its own innovation center; it has also set up a process wherein senior executives take time to look outside of healthcare for ideas. These two or three annual events are called “Innovisits.”

The practice began over a decade ago, explains Ms. Turner, with a “growing awareness that we had a lot to learn from organizations delivering excellence outside of healthcare.” For each visit, Beacon identifies an area it would like to improve, then seeks out a company well known for excellence in that field.

In 2015, an Innovisit to Harley-Davidson to study its perspectives on customer motivation and brand building led to a long-term customer-listening exercise. It illustrated that “while healthcare had advanced in terms of delivering care, it was not so advanced in terms of convenience or easy access,” says Ms. Turner. Beacon then developed a three-year program of innovation to better meet customer expectations. A virtual urgent care telephone app went live in January 2017.

Overcoming cultural barriers

Ms. Turner notes, “There are few barriers to looking outside of healthcare for inspiration, once you are thinking of it.” It does require a cultural leap for many organizations, however. Ms. Zuber believes that what is most important “is having a mindset of curiosity and openness—not with [hostile] pre-judgment.”

There are few barriers to looking outside of healthcare for inspiration, once you are thinking of it.

Embedding cultural change into an organization more permanently involves developing the skills to communicate the potential benefits of this kind of innovation to the entire company. “Taking ideas from the outside requires almost this translator function,” says Ms. Zuber. The results, she continues, “can be amazing. You can get real excitement from people.” Indeed, modelling successful innovations, Ms. Zuber adds, is one of the key ways of winning over sometimes reluctant organizations to the value of looking to other industries for ideas.

Finally, notes Ms. Turner, hospitals should see those outside healthcare as potential allies. “Most individuals want to see healthcare improve,” she says, “for themselves, their families and their communities. The organizations we have approached have been more than happy and generous in sharing, so the first step is to ask.”


Page Citations

  1. The Commonwealth Fund, Findings from a Survey of Health Care Delivery Innovation Centers [chart pack], April 2015.
  2. The Innovation Learning Network, “About Us,” http://www.innovationlearningnetwork.org/#aboutus [accessed January, 30 2017].
  3. The Commonwealth Fund, Findings from a Survey of Health Care Delivery Innovation Centers [chart pack], April 2015.
  4. Hospital innovation centers think outside the box to solve healthcare’s biggest problems,” Becker’s Hospital Review, September 15, 2015.


This article was written by The Economist Intelligence Unit and sponsored by Prudential. For more information call Prudential Retirement® at 800-353-2847 or visit  Healthcare.PrudentialRetirement.com.

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