Skip to Main Content

How do top hospitals drive innovations in digital health?

This article is based on a recent episode of The Daily Stand that contained an interview between Dan Tatar and Brian Mullen. Listen to the full episode here, subscribe, and leave us a review! 

Bringing a new healthcare app to market is hard.

We think that’s appropriate. There should be higher barriers to entry for products that directly affect mental and physical health. “Move fast and break things,” isn’t an appropriate mantra when what’s getting broken is your health.

However, this doesn’t mean that innovating in digital health needs to be hard. On the contrary, we firmly believe that healthcare can absolutely benefit from more innovation.

The trouble is that people often conflate the two, thinking that because bringing a new app to market is hard, innovation in digital health will be hard. In reality, digital health innovation is something that can be nurtured, turned into a system, and used to by hospitals to help drive improved patient experiences and outcomes.

The Brigham Digital Innovation Hub (iHub), a research center at Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) in Boston, is a leader in supporting innovation both from within and through partnerships. In this post, Brian Mullen, previously the Digital Strategy Manager of the iHub, shares how he helped BWH harness its incredibly innovative workforce and turn that into meaningful digital transformation at the hospital.

The Brigham has made it a point to focus on better digital solutions to be able to provide higher quality care to any patient at any time, anywhere in the world. With that goal in mind, Mullen would meet with any employee at BWH who had an idea or suggested improvement, from the surgeons to the custodians. Everyone at the hospital—all 20,000 employees—had a willing partner ready to listen in Brian, which helped the hospital generate research revenue of $707 million in 2018.

Let’s take a closer look at how Mullen helped innovators go from insight to impact, and find out how you can apply the same process in your healthcare organization, too.

Nurturing the idea

The good news is, the first step to nurturing innovation in a hospital is a fairly straightforward one.

No matter who is coming to you with an idea—whether it’s a clinician, researcher, administrator, or custodian—you’ll first want to sit back and listen with an empathetic ear. Oftentimes, innovation comes from a specialist running into a painful or inefficient process over and over again, and they can’t do their job without being reminded of this pain point day in and day out. They’re busy, and they’re taking the time to come to you for help solving their problem.

Mullen would often sit back for half an hour to an hour and encourage them to share more. To help this process, you could ask meaningful clarifying questions such as: Can you expand on that more? Can you give me a specific example of that? You’ll want to have them state the problem in their own words, because it’s difficult for someone to fully express a problem while also trying to frame it in tech or business jargon that they may not be comfortable with. On the other hand, if they use industry jargon that you aren’t familiar with, ask them to define it. They are an expert in their field, and having them express their pain point in a way that makes sense to them will help them fully articulate the problem and their ideas.

The point is to create an environment – and a reputation – that gives you and the other person room to explore the idea deeper in order to understand its potential.

How do you know if an idea is a good idea or a bad one? At this stage, you don’t. Perhaps saying “a bad idea” is not the right way to frame it. As Brian Mullen said, “The idea can be good, the timing can be bad. The funding might not be there.” For example, in the era of COVID-19, it can be difficult to get anyone interested in hearing ideas that aren’t related to the pandemic or connected to topics such as telehealth. That doesn’t mean an idea isn’t viable—it’s just not the right time.

Defining the problem

Next, you’ll want to help the clinician define the problem. Why is this necessary? Wasn’t this what we already accomplished by listening to them? Not necessarily. In Mullen’s experience, people usually come with an idea for a solution without clearly articulating the problem. Your goal should be to decouple the solution from the problem before trying to assess the idea that they think will solve their problem. If you’re going to pour time, energy, and money into a solution, it’s important to make sure you’re moving in the right direction. Clearly defining the problem without boxing yourselves into one potential solution sounds simple, is critical, but is deceptively hard.

Exploring potential solutions

Once you’ve clearly identified the problem, Mullen still advises not to jump directly into building a new product or starting a new business. You’ll want to keep the goal of hospitals in mind—delivering better care to patients—and help keep the discussion focused on how solving the problem would achieve this goal and bring value to patients.

With the ultimate goal in mind, you can begin to explore potential solutions together. In this idea-generation phase, ask the clinician: What would the ideal solution look like if there was no limit on the amount of time, effort, money, and resources we have at our disposal?

The next step is to marry the solution with the why. Why should we carry out this solution, and what impact would this have if we fix the problem? Start to frame potential solutions by the impact they might have. Once you gain a better understanding of what might fix the problem and why it needs to be fixed, you can decide if it’s worth exploring further.

From Innovation to Application

You’ve found an idea you’re ready to pursue further. You’ve defined the problem, mapped solutions, and prioritized the best one based on the impact it has on your organization’s goals.

How do you bridge the gap from that idea to a product? You’ll still need both parties on board—you, and the clinician or researcher—so that you can amplify each other’s strengths. Their insight, experience, and expertise is critical to making the idea work. So, take a collaborative approach and make sure the expert is comfortable sharing their thoughts and ideas, and empower them to actively participate in this process.

Keep in mind that they will have limited time to collaborate with you on building the product, so you’ll want to clearly define their role in this process. How can you maximize limited time with them? Where are there gaps in your knowledge that you need an expert in surgery or clinical research to fill? What can you offload from someone like a surgeon? What can’t you?

You’ll likely find that your expert may be less effective at things like translating an idea into a product, building the product, and planning distribution.

Does an app make sense?

This is an important one. Sometimes, the solution needs to be digital, such as an app. But sometimes the solution is more like rearranging desks. For our sake, let’s assume you’re best served by building an app.

If you do decide to develop a digital health app, the clinician needs to understand the basic parameters of the project and have realistic expectations. How long might it take? What budget is required? How hard of a problem is this for technology to solve and why? Is a mobile app enough or does this also need a clinician-facing dashboard?

When it comes to a budget, Mullen says, “I was always an advocate for smaller grants to more people to do a very important thing in this stage [which] is some basic discovery work with a professional firm.”

While starting with a smaller grant may sound counterintuitive, it will allow the team to start discovery work with a product or design firm that specializes in early-stage product development and concept validation.

Discovery work will help the doctor get a clearer idea of what the long-term commitment looks like, and sometimes it takes a lot more energy and effort than they’re expecting. Mullen says, “In closing that gap of expectation, you can be informed by professionals that can give you more information to then start to define what your next step is.” You can also gain a better understanding of the funding required to complete the project.

At this point, your team should grow from: at least one domain expert like a surgeon with an urgent pain point, to include an innovation strategist that helps understand a rough roadmap and whether an app may make sense, to including early-stage product expertise from a specialized firm.

What to expect from a digital product firm

In this stage, the goal is still discovery and validation, so you’re looking to build a prototype that lets you learn a lot without spending a lot. A digital product firm will be able to work with your team to produce wireframes or other representations of the solution. They can also help define a product roadmap, including the timeline and cost of taking an idea from MVP to a full-fledged product.

Rather than jumping right in and building a full-blown app (which can be time-consuming and expensive), your team can design an MVP (the Minimum Viable Product, or in other words, the simplest version of your product that can be released while providing meaningful value to your users) or build a prototype so as not to waste time and money.

Dan Tatar, CEO of ADK, adds, “There’s also a lot of learning for the clinicians around what’s possible right now through tech. Sometimes there’s an idea of how a clinician wants to solve a problem, and when you get a technical counterpart involved it really opens a clinician’s eyes to… some of the tools that are at my disposal to solve this problem.”

You should end with a clear idea of your problem, your market, and a roadmap that addresses the former in the context of the latter. You should also be armed with something tangible—as well as data—that will help you take the next steps and unlock additional funding, support, and approval. A working prototype, with data that shows at least the potential of product-market fit, will excite investors much more than a napkin sketch or a bullet list in an email.

Should this be a business?

Very few new ideas end up being worth the time, effort, energy, and resources it takes to start an entire new business. Doing so has an enormous opportunity cost, but the potential upsides could very well outweigh the cost. How do you help your clinicians decide if the idea is worth the cost, and what should you do if you think they may be onto a great idea worth exploring further? Like Mullen said, it all starts with listening. This helps you build the team necessary to validate and test an idea to answer questions like: What is the actual problem? Should this solution be an app? Should this app be a business? Keep in mind that whether or not the idea becomes a business is not a reflection on the value of the idea.

The road to digital innovation

It’s important to note that world-renowned teaching hospitals like Brigham and Women’s Hospital have a leg up on innovation thanks to organizations like the iHub. While many large hospitals include technology transfer offices, these are often better suited for later stages of innovation and building, after an idea has already been nurtured from pain point to road map.

The ultimate value of supporting innovation inside a hospital, according to Mullen, is that it helps the hospital better use the best technologies to improve patient outcomes. By providing a fertile environment for new ideas from both inside and outside the organization, a hospital can better position itself to quickly realize the benefits of new technology.

We’ve covered a high-level overview of how hospitals and other healthcare organizations can follow in the model of the iHub, but if you’d like more in-depth and specific information don’t hesitate to reach out.