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US healthcare giants are open to new innovations

The Boston-based Partners HealthCare facility includes community and specialty hospitals, a managed care organization, a physician network, community health centers, home care, and other health-related entities. Several of its hospitals are teaching affiliates of Harvard Medical School, and Partners HealthCare is a national leader in biomedical research.

While it may be easier for large organizations to ‘dock’ with other large organizations, the challenge for innovative start-ups looking to work with them is to create a shared understanding, and ultimately a shared reward.

“The best way to align hospital clinicians and innovation experts is to establish the value of the innovation and then secure a champion to advocate for it at the highest level,” said Chris Coburn, Chief Innovation officer at Partners HealthCare, and a former founder of Cleveland Clinic Innovations. “Innovation experts need someone in the customer organization who is comfortable with breakthrough insights and acting on them.”

While for a start-up, pitching technology is its sole focus, for the healthcare system it is just one of the hundreds of potential solutions. Coburn explained there is a need to make sure the right level of attention is given to a technology in the big organization. Creating a cultural alignment takes effort.

“The key is to clearly identify the decision makers. In health IT, that could one of many people or units, whereas with a medical device, you will likely interface with a single contact,” said Coburn. “Do your reconnaissance to try and figure out who is going to be making the decisions and have a realistic view of timelines”.

New data opportunities

The areas of healthcare innovation about which Coburn is most excited, are immune therapy and, on the IT side, machine learning and artificial intelligence. According to a recent report, 86 percent of healthcare organizations, whether industry, academic or government, are not yet using AI. In 10 years, care is going to look a lot different than it does today.

“Interest in biosensors is already increasing,” said Iris Berman, VP telehealth services at Northwell Health. “There is still a way to go, but we are looking very much forward to the predictive analytics that go along with that.”

This interest aligns with the industry’s shifting emphasis from reactive medicine to a more proactive approach to health.

“At the moment, we’re taking care of very sick people,” said Berman. “If we can take care of that population using AI and sensors, it is in those populations that the best bang for our buck will come in terms of capital spend.”

Through her work in telemedicine, predictive analytics is already helping Northwell Health become more proactive. It’s also enabling people to have more control over their care. The result is treatment at home, which is less expensive and allows patients the support of loved ones. Telemedicine can also help in those parts of the population unable to access care, for a variety of reasons. Berman debunked the myth that older patients are tech-averse.

“Almost all senior citizens have a phone, and we’re all about the bring-your-own-device approach. If innovators develop products that use devices that patients are familiar with, they are fine with it,” added Berman. “There are programs we use that integrate with their television, for example. If you integrate healthcare with TV or phone, patients are very comfortable with that.”

Working smarter

For Robyn Muzeka, Technology Innovation Lead at Adventist Health System in Florida, the move is on to help get physicians away from ‘pajama time’ – the time spent working on electronic health record systems after work hours.

Muzeka explained that one way to deliver value is through devices that enable physicians to use ambient technology and machine learning/AI to document information and pull up charts. These are in the room but are not as invasive as a microphone they have to speak into.

Adventist Health System is partnering with GE on its mission control applications, using methods of sifting through and analyzing data for failings in a way not unlike air traffic control, ensuring patients get to the next level of care as efficiently as possible.

Technologies that help with the social determinants of healthcare are also required, particularly as hospitals spend so much time working with people who don’t have insurance, or have limited insurance. Opportunities exist for niche applications for AI such as in scheduling too.

Partner for progress

“For start-ups looking to engage with health systems, the biggest challenge is one of scale,” said Muzeka. “In the US, we have small markets and large markets, and sometimes we can’t roll out the same technology in each market. Innovators need to be open with their solutions, be adaptable. If you have something you are willing to pilot, we can figure out those other pieces, but remain flexible and open.”

“It’s good to be device agnostic,” added Berman. “Interoperability is huge, as is understanding that hospitals will have a series of legacy systems in place. Be ready to integrate into existing systems.”

Muzeka agreed: “Where we have been most successful with vendors is where they are willing to co-develop with us, instead of offering a turnkey product.”

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