Community Hospitals – Seven Tips to Encourage Innovation

June 26, 2014
William Balfour

By Shelley Burns, Vice President.

Community Hospitals “independent hospitals of ~300 beds and less have to tackle the same issues as their big-bed brothers or health system sisters. They must lower costs while improving quality, do more with fewer resources, and affiliate effectively with other providers. But they don’t have the scale or corporate structure to help with research, data mining, standardization, group purchasing and the like to drive efficiencies.

What do community hospitals have? Scarce resources leads to more naturally occurring innovation. Aesop was right about necessity being the mother of invention. And community hospitals are typically the largest employer and integral to their communities, resulting in a loyal workforce committed to providing outstanding healthcare value. Smaller hospitals might think that innovation only thrives at the large, prestigious research institute, but that’s not the case. Community hospitals’ circumstances are ripe for innovation if you successfully tap the potential of all the employees within your walls. A recent article in Becker’s highlights a few hospitals that are innovating today and making a difference.

Seven Tips to Encourage Innovation

1. Ask a better question

When looking for improvement, administrators typically ask, “What does (insert renowned hospital name here) do differently than we do?” Predictably, the manager presents a list of things such as multiple clinics, broad service ranges, a large endowment, specialized staff, and the latest high-tech equipment – things a community hospital can’t, and shouldn’t, aspire to. Instead of inspiring innovation, the list becomes a barrier.

The better question is “What can YOU do differently?” Answers will be actionable, grounded in your hospital’s environment and talents. Task your managers to take action and make change, not simply generate wish lists.

If the manager’s response is, “Well, I don’t think there’s anything I can do differently,” perhaps the needed difference is a different manager.

2. Try, try, try again

Webster’s defines innovation as “a new process resulting from study and experimentation.” How many managers endlessly study an idea, but never get around to experimenting, actually doing it? Launch a pilot, measure the results, tweak & revise, measure again, tweak, ad infinitum. Soon, pilots become the norm – the way you test ideas in YOUR hospital, with YOUR staff ” and then you have achieved an essential factor in successful, ongoing innovation.

3. Is it evidence-based?

Clinicians, thankfully, are grounded in evidence-based methods necessary for changes in clinical protocol, drug substitutions and the like. Is the same level of scientific rigor necessary when developing a script for housekeepers cleaning a patient room or deciding to collect a co-pay in the emergency department? No. The evidence is in the execution and the result. (Implement the script. How does patient satisfaction change? There’s the evidence!) Help managers understand the difference and allow them latitude to experiment appropriately.

4. It’s not a program

Employees have long tired of the program of the year with a huge roll-out and concomitant training so everyone can solve every problem by stepping through every tool. Be clear that it’s not about the method as much as the results. Encouraging an innovative culture doesn’t need a drum-roll announcement, just start recognizing and supporting innovation when you see it. Driving innovation CAN be a C-suite initiative, but it works just as well at the department level. You don’t have to wait for permission from anyone before encouraging staff to innovate.

5. Think outside the employee suggestion box

Sure, it can spark innovation, but often you get a cluster of complaints. Think about providing a monthly or quarterly topic that matters for employee suggestions ” “How can we improve communication to patients?” or “How can we make the ED wait less frustrating?” And don’t let the box constrain the way you gather improvements either – maybe it’s an innovation contest or webpage, an ongoing twitter feed, a nomination process, or a suggestion uncovered by walking around and asking questions. Posting good ideas will inspire more ideas. Write “innovate processes” into job descriptions and performance reviews; make innovation an expectation of everyone.

6. Reward what you want to achieve
If your primary goal is to encourage an innovative culture, go ahead and reward people for taking risk, trying new things and honest mistakes or miscues. But, if you really need to improve your cost position, communicate that and reward innovations that reduce expenses or increase revenues. You can still support groups that try new things, but reward and recognize the innovations that drive your goals – your real goals.

7. Know your limits and make them known to others

Guidelines mean your staff won’t propose a pilot that is too risky or too expensive.

Remember if your staff hasn’t used their innovation muscles for awhile, it will take some time to get into peak form. But your hospital will reap the rewards if you leverage the brainpower of every employee towards improving quality and efficiency.

Have other tips to encourage innovation? Add them in the comment section!


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