5 strategies to spark innovation in your health system


Brent Stutz

Senior Vice President, Commercial Technologies, Pharmaceutical Segment

Innovation, while paramount to success, is a balancing act in any organization.

Expecting it to happen organically doesn’t always work …you have to devote the right resources to it. And the changing healthcare landscape only makes innovation all the more challenging. A healthcare provider’s world is in a state of constant transition: moving from volume to value. So how can you set up your organization to innovate swiftly while in this transition?

At Cardinal Health, innovation has in many ways been the fuel that has taken us from a regional drug distributor to the Fortune 26 healthcare solutions company we are today. But it’s never been easy. The fact is, we face many of the same innovation challenges that our health system customers face - organizational complexity, multiple priorities and limited time and resources.

In 2014, birthed from our goal to solve healthcare’s toughest challenges, Cardinal Health opened an innovation lab we call Fuse. At Fuse, great ideas are shared among diverse minds, vetted each day and turned into impactful healthcare solutions. Here are five strategies we use at Fuse that can help keep innovation as a constant in your organization, too:

1. Demonstrate commitment to innovation, starting at the top.

PriceWaterhouseCooper’s most recent Innovation 100 survey indicated that CEOs across all sectors, including healthcare, are now taking personal responsibility for directing and inspiring innovation. Sixty-four percent said that innovation and operational effectiveness are equally important to the success of their organization. And for good reason. Complacency is a sure-fire way to de-motivate employees and lose sight of what’s most important to any business’ success: finding new ways to meet the evolving needs of customers (or in healthcare, patients).

As the leader of Fuse (and with the unwavering support of Cardinal Health senior leaders), I made it my mission early on to develop a culture in which innovation would be rewarded and valued. Each of these strategies has helped to create a team that isn’t afraid to take risks and solve problems.

2. Give power to the people. Make innovation part of everyone’s job description.

Commitment from leadership is important, but innovation can’t rest solely in the hands of a few. Employees at all levels must be empowered to identify problems and opportunities, while creating new ways to address and seize them. Oftentimes, it’s the frontline staff, like nurses, administrators, and care coordinators who are closest to the patient and have the greatest insight into new ideas, big and small, that can help improve the patient experience.

At Fuse, teams are largely self-directed. Senior leaders are there to support employees, and to help eliminate obstacles to their success. Day-to-day decisions rest within the project teams, which speeds up the process and results in faster implementation. Speed is essential for innovating in the healthcare industry. Our teams work within two-week time periods (we call them “sprints”) that provide the agility to course-correct early and often based on user feedback.

3. Create the right environment for innovative thinking.

Building innovation into everyone’s job description is critical – but employees also need a collaborative environment to open their minds and to cultivate innovative ideas. This could mean creating a completely new space in your facility – or just getting your team into a different environment to leave their typical mindset behind for the afternoon.

At Fuse, this means breaking down literal and figurative silos and hierarchies. We have physically knocked down boundaries between employees by creating a completely open workspace with zero personal offices.

Everything about the space, including its custom-designed entryway sculpture, is intentionally designed to remind employees and visitors alike that when they walk through the door, we want both their right and left brain engaged. We want employees to leave their job titles, business units and silos behind so they can focus on solving customer problems. In the heart of our Fuse space is a Collaboration Hub – nothing more than a very large table in the center of the space – where employees are encouraged to eat lunch, talk about projects and ideas and just hang out. It’s an easy way to create the kind of informal, connected atmosphere where creative collisions can (and do) happen every day. The layout of the entire facility encourages a broad cross section of people – clinicians, engineers, marketers, even high-tech anthropologists – to work to figure out problems, together.

4. Schedule time for curiosity and experimentation.

Scheduling specific ideation time – and being diligent about using it - establishes a culture of curiosity and experimentation that leads to productive innovation.

For example, every other Friday at Fuse, our engineers plan four hours of “spark time” into their calendars, where they work (usually off-site) on solving a problem that they are passionate about. The problem usually has nothing to do with their assigned projects, and doesn’t even necessarily have to do with healthcare. Teams have “sparked” on medication adherence solutions, object-recognition technology and machine learning technologies, just to name a few.

5. Challenge your teams to walk in the shoes of your end users.

Innovation is meant to solve problems. Until you experience your end user’s world, it’s difficult to identify the problems and pain points that are worth pursuing.  For health systems, end users can include any person who plays a part in care delivery – a  frontline nurse, a patient intake specialist, an IT analyst, or, most obviously, a patient. But all too often, we can get so wrapped up in our day-to-day tasks that we don’t take the time to really understand health care delivery from the perspective of each of these end-users.

To help counter that challenge, Fuse employees commit to visiting at least two customer sites each year. They should be able to close their eyes and see the workflow – or ‘business in action’ – at the customer’s facility, from the customer’s point of view.

We are equally as committed to inviting customers into our world. We have a target of at least 100 customer visits to Fuse, each year: medical product and drug manufacturers, hospital leaders, physicians, pharmacists, patients, practice managers, caregivers and other innovators. Just a few months ago, we welcomed MedStar Health and team members from their innovation center, MedStar Institute for Innovation (MI2), to Fuse for a strategy-sharing and collaboration session. As a result of that meeting, we are exploring several potential collaboration projects focused on advancing health and wellness.

We also look for ways to meaningfully engage those who visit our facility. For example, this past summer, when several practice managers and owners of oncology clinics were visiting, we hosted a “Shark Tank” like event, where various teams pitched technology concepts. Our guests voted for the concept they liked best. Eight weeks later, we had developed that winning idea into a working prototype for the practice managers to evaluate, and 11 of the 12 said they’d use it on the spot.

It’s this constant exposure to others who share our commitment to improving healthcare, and to other organizations that are committed to innovation, that keeps us focused on our purpose. It’s that exposure that helps us remember the urgency of our work. It keeps us curious, and drives us to learn how to do everything better. And in the end, isn’t that really what innovation is really about?

Want to visit our innovation lab? We’d love to have you. Drop us a line at fuse@cardinalhealth.com to let us know you’d like to meet. We look forward to learning from you.