Friday, March 23, 2007

clinical innovations - Health Care Organizations: Select a Chief Innovation Officer

Within five years, I predict health care organizations of all sizes, shapes, and functions – health plans, hospitals, medical practices, support groups, consultants, supply chain vendors, health care associations, consumer groups -- will select someone within their organization to be their chief innovation officer.

The chief innovation officer will generate ideas, sift through them, pick winners, and lead organizations towards a future geared to productive change.

Right now only a handful of health care chief innovation officers exist – at the health plan giant, Humana; at Alegent Health, midsized hospital system in eastern Nebraska and western Iowa, and at Cadient Group, a health care marketing agency. No doubt other Chief Innovation Officers exist that have escaped my attention, but there are still too precious few Chief Innovation Officers.

Many health leaders are already serving as functional Chief Innovation Officers – CEOs and CIOs of hospitals and health plans, Chief Medical Officers, physician leaders, nurse executives, nurses and managers in physician offices. I don’t really care what title these persons bear, or whether they call themselves Chief Innovation Officers, Chief Information Officers, Chief Inspirational Officers, or Chief Instigation Officers, as long as they create, generate, foment, elicit, implement, filter, and test out new ideas.

The CIO’s chief functions are to stimulate, generate, and instigate ideas, principally from below – from managers, employees, people on clinical front lines, patients, staffs in medical offices, from consumers and the public at large. Workable new ideas generally do not not come from the top rungs of an organization, but from lower and bottom rungs, from service and interactive personnel on the front lines of care.

The CIOs other functions are to keep ideas flowing and to try them out, again and again, failing again and again, then starting out again. My favorite definition at the moment for “innovation” is this one, which I read in the March 20 New York Times.

Innovation is a constant process of trial and error. You need the willingness to fail all the time. You have to generate many ideas and then you have to work very hard only to discover they don’t work. And you keep doing that over and over until you find one that does work (Steve Lohr, “John W. Backus, 82, Fortran Developer Dies, March 20, New York Times).

John W. Backus assembled and led the I..B.M team that created Fortran, the widely used computer program language that opened the door in 1957 to modern computing. Perhaps this is my favorite quote because in the late 1960s, Russell Hobbie, a professor of physics at the University of Minnesota and I, used computer software, which Hobbie wrote in Fortran, to create a program that generated a differential diagnosis for abnormal laboratory results of some 600 tests that was used in 6 million laboratory reports.

What does a chief information officer do? Jonathan Lord, MD, chief innovation officer of Humana since 2002, says,

The CIO becomes the spiritual leader within the enterprise. His basic role to bring new ideas into health care and to find talented people who can handle ambiguity and who have passion for change – people who have comfort with new ideas, who can align beliefs, and who can co-create.

The CIO, in short, constantly co-generates idea, keeps the ideas flowing, and tests them out to see if they work or fail.

Harry Lukens, Chief Information Officer of Lehigh Valley Health Network in Allentown, Pennsylvania, has developed and chaired a group he calls the “Wild Idea Team.” It has a rotating membership of 18 to 25 people, at all levels of the organization. The team places no ideas off limits, and there is only one rule “no snickering.”

Health care needs more Harry Lukens.
Who take positively nothing for givens,
Who tolerate no gratuitous snide snickering,
Who forbid all internecine biased bickering,
Who believe out there lies some wild idea,
That may very well the key to the future be a.

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