How 3 Midwestern health systems are tackling innovation

Visits to three health systems — Mercy Health in Grand Rapids, Michigan; Henry Ford Health System in Detroit; and OSF HealthCare in Peoria, Illinois — showcase how they’re thinking creatively about simulation, startups, 3D printing and more.

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Disruptive innovation — that’s a word that is thrown around a lot these days. And the established notion is that it squarely is in the territory of novel startups that are taking on entrenched healthcare interests — be it big pharma, the insurance industry or large hospitals.

And yet, health systems are not exactly sitting on their hands either. So, when you have a population of patients to care for and providers whose problems need solving, how do you innovate? More importantly, how are health systems — which traditionally aren’t considered pioneers of inventive thinking — contemplating creativity?

We visited three Midwestern hospitals to get some answers. And found that instead of blindly imitating the approaches of their better-known brethren such as the Mayo Clinic or Cleveland Clinic, they are charting their own path to transform healthcare.

Take Grand Rapids, Michigan-based Mercy Health. 

Rather than incubating startups and commercializing technology, it is taking a community-focused approach to innovation through its Mercy Health Innovation Hub, which opened in 2015. The reason behind the hub “wasn’t to bring new projects to market,” Mercy chief integration officer Mary Boyd said during an in-person interview in December. It was to bring an innovative culture to the organization.

Notably, the hub isn’t housed in a hospital or one of the system’s own buildings; it’s in GRid70, a modern-looking structure situated in downtown Grand Rapids. Several other organizations also have offices in GRid70, including supermarket chain Meijer, marketing company Amway and Wolverine World Wide, a footwear manufacturer. That choice of location was very deliberate as Mercy wanted to be around other industries that were farther along in innovation than healthcare. The companies occupying GRid70 can use shared space on the fourth floor of the building. Plus they’re able to “use each other as a sounding board,” said Ben Look, Mercy’s regional director of project management and operational improvement. For instance, Mercy can compare how it envisions retail versus how a footwear company like Wolverine looks at retail.

Space at Mercy Health Innovation Hub / Photo: Mercy Health

In its own space on other floors of GRid70, the hub can concentrate on its three foci: patient experience, population health management, and growth. It has an office for its digital solutions group on the fourth floor, while it has offices, conference rooms and space for team collaboration on the sixth floor.

During a December tour, that floor was filled with notes and pictures revolving around a few of the hub’s recent research projects, including one about patient loyalty. In addition to mining approximately 5,000 patient experience surveys for commentary, Mercy asked about two dozen patients about their relationship with the health system. The goal is to take factual information from real patients and narrow it down into a few insights about how individuals perceive their engagement and experience with Mercy.

Another one of the hub’s recent activities focuses on the care environment. In January 2018, the health system opened Mercy Health Physician Partners Innovative Primary Care office on the west side of Grand Rapids. The hub played an instrumental role in overseeing how the new office was designed. After all, the layout and design of a hospital can have an impact on the patient experience, as a Harvard Business Review article noted.

At GRid70, Mercy filled its space with pictures of primary care clinics. During workshops, stakeholders — like patients, doctors dressed in regular clothing sans the white lab coat and leaders from Livonia, Michigan-based Trinity Health, Mercy’s parent organization — were invited to walk around, write their thoughts on sticky notes and put them next to the images. The point was to gather feedback about what individuals liked and disliked in a primary care office. Mercy was able to see which trends emerged and fuel ideas for how the physical clinic should be built.

After holding these workshops, Mercy decided to simulate the primary care office it set out to design. That’s where the third floor of GRid70 came in. The hub took the open floor plan of floor three and simulated every space of the clinic (except the conference room) to full scale at some point, said Look, Mercy’s regional director of project management and operational improvement. He noted that they redesigned the exam room more than 20 times. By playing with layout options for parts of the clinic, the hub was able to create an ideal care environment for the primary care office that opened last year.

The Mercy Health Innovation Hub works with some clinical startups, but Look declined to name any specific ones due to non-disclosure agreements. Overall, its focus remains on shaping Mercy’s culture to better assist patients and providers.

On the other side of Michigan, another health system is harnessing the existing innovative culture behind its namesake and location to bring changes to healthcare. Unlike Mercy Health, it is very much interested in incubating and commercializing internal ideas.

In 2012, Henry Ford Health System in Detroit launched the Henry Ford Innovation Institute, which is housed in the Old Education Building on the health system’s main campus. The facility itself is rich with history — it holds a stage where Henry Ford used to hand out diplomas to nursing students. Though the building has been revamped, it contains numerous nods to Ford and Detroit’s auto industry. A few tabletops in the institute are made from old car taillights, while a donor wall includes a profile of Ford and gears with donors’ names.

The institute got on its feet with financial help from the Ford family and has also secured capital from other philanthropic sources. From the start, a large part of its goal has been to develop and commercialize ideas from individuals within the organization.

For instance, one product out of the institute is the “Model G” patient gown, which was designed to better cover the patient’s backside. The aim of the gown, which has a set of buttons in the front and an access slit in the back, is to provide the wearer with ample coverage while also allowing providers to adequately examine the patient. It is now in use at HFHS. Patients at other health systems are wearing it as well, since Henry Ford inked a licensing agreement with Medline Industries to manufacture, market and distribute the gowns.

Another idea was born when a nurse came to the institute with a problem: She and her colleagues experienced finger pain after having to open a high number of sterilization containers each day. The institute designed a lightweight aluminum case opener and contracted a local manufacturer to make it. The openers weren’t commercialized but are being used internally at HFHS.

Additionally, the institute has a Corporate Innovation Program, which creates opportunities for corporate partners to work with Henry Ford and participate in the commercialization of tools. The Detroit system has gone global by working with startups like Healthymize, an Israeli company that offers voice monitoring to predict problems in diseases like COPD. The Israeli startup won a $75,000 award from Henry Ford last year.

Dr. Dee Dee Wang with 3D printed hearts in her office / Photo: Henry Ford Health System

But there’s more to the story than simple products like gowns and aluminum case openers. A walk through the institute reveals that 3D printing is very much part of the innovation program. Dr. Dee Dee Wang, a cardiologist and the medical director of 3D printing at Henry Ford Innovation Institute, has shelves of 3D-printed hearts in her office, and said that much of the institute’s 3D work focuses on the human heart. Making a physical model of the patient’s heart allows physicians to simulate putting in a valve during surgery. They can see which valve and catheter size best fits a certain patient.

3D printing techniques can be useful for more than just surgery — they can even help basketball players. When an NBA star breaks his nose, he has to wear a protective mask during games. The masks are typically molded to a player’s face, which can be painful with a broken nose. As the official healthcare provider of the Detroit Pistons, Henry Ford is offering an alternative approach. At the beginning of the season, the institute can scan all the Pistons players’ faces. If one breaks his nose, Henry Ford can take the scan and make a 3D model of the player’s face, which can then be used to make the face mask.

By commercializing technology and leveraging 3D printing, Henry Ford aims to solve healthcare’s problems that involve both patients and providers.

Across the Midwest, a third health system is marrying elements from Mercy and Henry Ford to create its own approach to innovation. In 2016, OSF HealthCare in Peoria, Illinois, launched OSF Innovation, which tackles everything from medical simulation to investing in new technologies.

Open since 2013, Jump Trading Simulation & Education Center is a collaborative effort between OSF and the University of Illinois College of Medicine Peoria. It offers a variety of simulation-based education events like STEAM camps for local youth, an immersion course for pre-med students and medical education programming for practicing doctors, residents and medical students. Manikins and other replicated pieces of anatomy allowing them to try resuscitation, suturing and wound care, among learning other skills. They can also practice dissection and surgical techniques on the center’s cadavers and cadaveric parts. Meanwhile, the facility’s virtual reality offering provides another opportunity to practice both invasive and non-invasive procedures without the need for cadavers.

Pre-med students during an immersion course at Jump Simulation / Photo: OSF HealthCare

In addition to patient-centric simulations, the center houses a virtual hospital complete with a nurse’s station, ICUs, patient rooms and an operating room, which gives surgical teams a chance to practice collaboration and communication.

But the real medical world involves more than simply working on a patient within the four walls of the hospital. That’s why Jump has a regional transport center that includes an ambulance (donated by Advanced Medical Transport of Central Illinois) and a furnished apartment, complete with a kitchen, living area, bathroom and bedroom. The setting lets medical professionals navigate the complexities of aiding a patient at home and moving him or her to the ambulance. To make the simulation all the more realistic, Jump has even brought in actors who can behave like a frightened family member.

OSF Ventures, another initiative under the OSF Innovation umbrella, is something provider organizations are looking into more and more: creating venture arms to invest in innovative startups. OSF Ventures looks at the entire gamut of healthcare companies: medical devices, diagnostics, therapeutics, services and health IT.

“Our venture program is very strategically focused,” Stan Lynall, OSF’s vice president of venture investments, said during a November visit to Jump. “It’s definitely aligned with our innovation work and is not a separate endeavor that some healthcare systems have it structured as.”

The fund is internal — it hasn’t raised money from investors. Lynall noted that the venture team has analyzed between 500 and 600 companies, but it has only invested in 13. These include AVIA, company that connects health systems to digital health startups to solve the former’s tech challenges; Renovia, which offers solutions for pelvic floor health; and PatientWisdom, a platform that turns patient and provider perspectives into insights to improve care.

But an investment in a certain startup doesn’t mean the broader OSF health system is using the company’s technology. Of the businesses OSF Ventures has invested in, OSF has implemented more of the digital companies’ solutions than the medtech startups’ solutions, Lynall said. This is mostly due to regulatory barriers.

Simulation and investing are just some of OSF Innovation’s capabilities. It has also dipped its toes into healthcare analytics, telehealth and performance improvement. Its partnerships program works with incubators, corporations and universities to discover technology that can help OSF meet its needs.

In the time since OSF Innovation has launched, a key goal has been to move away from keeping its disciplines siloed and toward having a more focused and nuanced approach. This involved integrating physicians, bringing together multidisciplinary teams and honing the overall mission.

“It is innovation as a culture, not ‘Innovation happens in this building,'” said Becky Buchen, OSF’s senior vice president of innovation operations.

Though Mercy, Henry Ford and OSF have taken different approaches to innovation, their areas of focus undoubtedly overlap. Perhaps most importantly, the underlying theme is common: to make the lives of patients and providers much easier. 

Photo: Peshkova, Getty Images