By Mark Long, Group Vice President, Digital Innovation, Providence St Joseph’s Health
During my time at NASA, Zynx Health, several startups and Amazon I learned a thing or two about innovation. The key lesson is best summed as “Success is not delivering a project or product; success is learning how to make your customers great at what your customers care about.” This has been written about by many other thought leaders including Steve Blank (Customer Development) , Kathy Sierra (Making Users Awesome) , and Eric Ries (The Lean Startup) . It’s grounded in a learning culture.
The healthcare industry is going through a transformation driven by many forces including changes in regulations, risk and price structures, and consumer expectations set by other industries. Technology is playing an increasingly important role in healthcare, but the answer is not to focus on the development of more tools and apps for their own sake. Instead success will come from an iterative learning process that leverages technology to focus on new ways to improve the lives of our patients, members, and providers.
When we committed to digital innovation at Providence St. Joseph Health, we vowed we were not going to be a passive player in the healthcare transition game. We were determined to lead this revolution and reinvent healthcare along the lines of our mission. Many Pacific Northwest organizations have reinvented industries such as Boeing, Microsoft, Costco, Nordstrom, Starbucks, REI, and Amazon. Now it’s our turn.
After several years on the front lines of the revolution, Providence has identified four key concepts that we feel are essential for traditional healthcare organizations to disrupt the way they deliver services and stay relevant.
Partner with innovators
Small innovative companies find it difficult to work with large health systems like ours. They tell us we are slow to make decisions, make integrating too complex, and tend to be risk averse. To address this problem, we established Providence Ventures, a $150 million venture fund that allows us to invest in and collaborate with early stage companies that offer promising technology solutions to healthcare challenges. We combined the venture fund with a disciplined prioritization and piloting process that allowed us to move quickly, take measured risk, evaluate the outcomes that resulted from these new products and provide feedback to the companies.
As our Chief Digital Officer and Managing General Partner of the venture fund, Aaron Martin, puts it, “We’re looking to invest in passionate, amazing management teams who are building disruptive technologies that solve important problems that our healthcare system and consumers care about.”
Our fund targets areas including healthcare e-commerce, patient experience and engagement, on demand care/home care, solutions that improve the clinical experience, care coordination/care management, chronic disease management and medical devices and diagnostics.
As part of this effort, we’re currently piloting a dozen new products from early stage companies. These iterative learning efforts will help us engage consumers in their own healthcare and develop ongoing relationships with them outside the physician’s office and between episodes of care. We believe healthcare organizations need to commit to this type of disciplined collaboration with external innovators to drive transformation.
Be a partner in the health of those we serve
A key driver in helping to transform the healthcare culture is the evolution from a transaction-based to a relationship-oriented environment. Historically, healthcare systems have focused on episodes of illness rather than on relationships that lead to long term health. Creating a lasting relationship builds loyalty by delivering relevant content, products, and services to consumers.
To help facilitate the shift, we created a consumer innovation group that works on products and services which center on long term relationships rather than sporadic encounters. For example, we have developed a personalization app called Circle to guide new mothers through their specific journey through pregnancy and into early childhood. It ties directly into their doctor and covers everything from OB care to events surrounding community mothers’ groups to finding post-natal support. That work is being extended to more broadly serve the family’s “chief medical officer” with ongoing access to trusted health information, convenient access to care and resources in her community to support her family as it grows.
Another initiative coming from our consumer group is Optimal Aging which focuses on keeping people healthy and at home by delivering non-medical services such as transportation, home maintenance, and meal delivery. Many organizations have talked about this type of program but it isn’t something a hospital or health system has traditionally initiated.
These are the types of innovative programs we feel are necessary to build relationships between providers and patients that will ultimately result in better outcomes.
Create a learning culture
Crystal balls don’t exist. You can’t just purchase a customer engagement platform to address the problem. Instead we need to create a learning culture driven by small batch innovation. This involves launching a small set of features into the market and learning about how those features affect the patient population. From there you continually adjust, optimize and improve in a lean, fast innovation cycle.
This can best be accomplished by an in-house product group that isn’t about incubating hundreds of ideas. It’s about focusing on a few major strategic themes such as consumer engagement or telehealth and having your designers, product managers, user experience people and software engineers own the experience in a multi-year commitment to be great at them. At Providence, this is the Digital Innovation group, my team. Ultimately it’s your responsibility to not just launch programs but to create a feedback loop that continuously monitors appropriate metrics to improve the product or service in a rapid iterative cycle.
Healthcare innovation is no longer about project management where the goal is getting to the right side of a Gantt chart on time and on budget. It’s about product management where success is defined as creating scalable and economically viable new customer value. It isn’t just about project execution, but instead is about an iterative learning process which requires a fundamentally different culture.
Meet patients where they are
To truly transform the healthcare culture, we need to start meeting patients and consumers where they are. The vast majority of people – especially those in the younger generation – are online around banking, shopping and travel. Mobile devices have already replaced desktops as the most often used method of accessing the internet. That’s where people are living their lives and they are demanding their healthcare providers meet them there. Eighty percent of internet users have searched for a health-related topic online and 77 percent of that group start their research on a health topic with a search engine. Are you tuned to meet them there?
Meeting these needs requires an online transformation that provides user-friendly and search-engine friendly ways to access information and interact with providers. Our digital marketing strategy should include better outreach with remote care and online services delivery wherever possible.
Changing a deep-rooted culture is difficult. We will ruffle feathers and bruise egos. We will make mistakes. We will be challenged by people who are resistant to change. But we need to provide a sense of urgency and clearly explain the risks of holding back versus the risks we must take. In the end, a bold innovative approach is the only way we can successfully transform the culture to help meet the opportunity to create the health system of the future.
For more information about keeping up in a disruptive and innovative healthcare environment, download our eBook, Thriving During Disruptive Change.
 Steve Blank, Customer Development website, steveblank.com
 Badass: Making Users Awesome, ebook, by Kathy Sierra, O’Reilly Media, 2015
 The Lean Startup, by Eric Ries, Crown Business, 2011.