How Healthcare Organizations Can Leverage Business Data To Innovate At Scale

By Charles Holive, managing director, Sisense.

Charles Holive

The big data revolution has made today’s healthcare industry a vibrant hub of innovation in data, analytics, and artificial intelligence. Recent decades have brought tremendous advances in not only the science of clinical and medical services, but also in the business strategy powering those services.

Across the industry, digital pioneers are leveraging data to create new efficiencies, solutions, and breakthrough treatments. However, just as the industry offers endless examples of incredible transformation, so too does it offer endless case studies in untapped potential.

Some roadblocks to healthcare data innovation in the healthcare industry are unavoidable: Decades’ worth of legacy and proprietary systems have made modernization and integration efforts enormously challenging. Strict regulations mean that the barrier to entry for new technologies and processes are much higher than in other industries. Additionally, many healthcare organizations face governance challenges spurred by years of continuous disruption—making it even harder to bring innovative ideas to fruition.

However, these obstacles have not stopped healthcare data innovation; they’ve merely slowed the pace of change. Generally, when an organization has the resources, competencies, and will to innovate, the only thing that can thwart those intentions is an inability to build effective business data strategy.

Often, that lack of ability stems from a fundamental misconception about innovation itself—a case of mistaken identity that confuses innovation for inspiration. When this misconception flourishes, organizations can fall into a state of institutional inertia, forever waiting for the next big idea to appear out of thin air.

These organizations fail to understand that innovation is a process, not some mysterious phenomenon, and that they can build concrete business strategies with repeatable procedures designed to continually drive the formulation of breakthrough ideas. Fortunately, organizations need only three core ingredients to build an effective business data strategy that fosters innovation.

  1. Fast Iteration

It’s been said, but it bears repeating: Innovation is a process. And when it comes to business innovation, an iterative process allows for the greatest amount of flexibility and experimentation in concepting and product development. Healthcare organizations who wish to develop new applications and revenue streams leveraging their data must create internal systems that allow for fresh ideas to be iterated upon at pace and at scale.

To do so, it is vital that these organizations drastically lower the cost to try. If, over the course of a year, the “cost to try” is 10 months of submissions, review, and approvals, then your organization will try one thing that year. If the cost to try is shortened to one week, then your organization will likely try 52 things that year. The more your organization is able to try new ideas, and iterate upon those ideas, the faster your organization will innovate.

One powerful tool helping organizations build fast iteration into their processes is the use of digital twins—detailed digital models of physical objects and processes that allow for big ideas to be tested at low cost.

Researchers at Oklahoma State University’s Computational Biofluidics and Biomechanics Laboratory have used digital twin models to optimize the delivery efficiency of aerosol medications. At the systems level, consultancy GE Healthcare recently teamed with Tampa General Hospital to launch the CareComm clinical command center, which leverages a digital twin of the hospital to predict patient needs and lower costs. Models like these significantly reduce the cost to try for innovative ideas leveraging patient data.

  1. Creative Constraints

When creating a business data strategy, organizations should also make use of creative constraints. For millennia, artists have used constraints to spur creativity, from poets navigating the meter and rhyme patterns of a sonnet to screenwriters motivated by a tight deadline. Constraints like these are just as valuable in business and science.

The California-based healthcare giant Kaiser Permanente offers a terrific example of what can happen when organizations place creative constraints on their innovation process. Kaiser has long challenged itself to build programs that tackle members’ holistic healthcare needs—not just those that can be addressed through clinical and medical services.

In 2017, Kaiser Permanente launched the aptly-named SONNET, a.k.a. the Social Needs Network for Evaluation and Translation, an initiative aimed at developing new ways of addressing social needs. That effort led to the launch of the organization’s new Thrive Local social care network. The network leverages Kaiser’s vast EHR system to connect patients with local resources that can help manage non-medical needs that have significant healthcare impacts, like food insecurity or housing instability.

  1. Customer Feedback

Building a process that allows for fast iterations will set the stage for your organization to innovate, and adding creative constraints to that process will provide a powerful catalyst for creativity. However, it’s only through the real world validation of customer feedback that innovative ideas can transition from fantasy to a reality ready for scaling and commercialization.

Few organizations understand this as well as Pittsburgh’s Highmark Health. In 2015, Highmark launched its Verification of Innovation by Testing, Analysis and Learning (VITAL) Innovation Program, an initiative created expressly for the purpose of accelerating the pace at which novel technologies and services are made available to Highmark customers. VITAL was originally designed to be a formal process for allowing the organization to test new FDA-approved technologies internally. However, after four years of successful operation, Highmark has rebranded the VITAL program as a commercial offering.

Now innovators from startups and other organizations can pitch new products to VITAL’s review board, and propose pilot projects or clinical trials to be run through the Highmark system. In this case, not only did customer feedback help Highmark bring a valuable new product to market, but the customer feedback itself became that product.

From Strategy to Innovation

With these ingredients in place, your business data strategy will have everything it needs to generate innovations that lead to radical new treatments and revenue streams. From there, it’s merely a matter of testing new ideas, refining them, and eventually bringing them to market.

Of course, once the process gets started, there will be many more considerations to bear in mind. Organizations must approach the innovation process with a sharp eye toward building a strong value proposition and an effective business case. Securing executive buy-in and executing effective sales channel activation will be crucial to getting new products off the ground internally. Looking beyond that, prototyping and pricing for new products will be vital determinants of their success.

However, as long as your core data strategy emphasizes fast iteration, use of creative constraints, and the importance of customer feedback, your initiative will have everything it needs to get up and running.

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