Intermountain Healthcare’s IT Push: A New Level of Vendor Co-Development

Sept. 28, 2013
Last month, senior leaders at the Salt Lake City-based Intermountain Healthcare announced that they had joined forces with several large IT vendors to bring what they referred to as “transformational technologies” to patient care delivery. In the wake of that announcement, Intermountain’s CIO, Marc Probst, and CTO, Fred Holston, spoke with HCI regarding their vision for co-development going forward.

Last month, senior leaders at the Salt Lake City-based Intermountain Healthcare announced that they had “joined forces” with several large IT vendors “to bring transformational technologies to the patient bedside quickly and more efficiently.” In a press release issued on Aug. 20, Intermountain executives reported that “Founding members Xi3 and Intel, and collaborators Dell, CenturyLink, NetApp, and Sotera Wireless joined together to participate with Intermountain’s Healthcare Transformation Lab. The Lab,” the press release noted, “is located on the campus of Intermountain’s flagship hospital, Intermountain medical Center, in Murray, Utah. Intermountain employees and collaborating organizations will jointly research, develop, and measure new ideas to improve and optimize patient care,” it added.

In establishing and fortifying their Healthcare Transformation Lab, the Intermountain senior leaders have made public and expanded efforts that have arisen organically out of a long history of, first, self-development (including one of the very first self-developed electronic health record systems in the U.S.), and then, co-development with vendors. Intermountain remains one of a handful of very large integrated health systems around the country, along with the Cleveland Clinic and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UMPC) health system, with the resources and the commitment to pursue such IT and other-technology development as part of the strategic mission of their organizations.

On Sep. 27, Intermountain Healthcare also announced a strategic partnership with the Kansas City-based Cerner Corporation that will “fully leverage Intermountain’s important work, including its industry-leading clinical processes and data warehouse,” according to a press release issued on that date. “It also will seek to build a new set of tools for a post-fee-for-service world in areas such as activity-based costing.”

Shortly after the Aug. 20 announcement, Marc Probst, Intermountain Healthcare’s senior vice president and CIO, and Fred Holston, the organization’s chief technology officer, spoke with HCI Editor-in-Chief Mark Hagland regarding their vision of the organization’s future, and the implications of their current work for the U.S. healthcare system. Below are excerpts from that interview.

Could you provide us with a context for the August 20 announcement? This clearly has emerged out of your organization’s history in this area, correct?

Marc Probst: Yes. You know that Intermountain has had a focus around innovation over the years. It’s been a lot around data, information, and the electronic medical record. But we felt we had a bit of a void around, just technology innovation, whether it had to do with mobile computing, or home monitoring, etc. We just didn’t feel we had enough innovation going on around devices, and Fred Holston, our CTO, has led the charge on this. And so this is a focus on that, and that opened up this concept of, let’s get some circuit-board cutters and 3D printers and soldering irons, and do something here. So three years ago, we started with a closet essentially, and now we’ve got a large building with a big space. And it’s not so much around electronic medical records as it is, how do you build things better, but also around how we create a better environment for the patients?

Are there any comparisons that can be made with the ongoing technology initiative taking place at UPMC?

Dan Drawbaugh [UPMC’s senior vice president and CIO] is a very good friend of mine, and they are far more entrepreneurial than we are, and far more outward-market-facing. We’re far more particular in our vision here, and want to leverage off our strengths. And for example, this monitoring company, Sotera, we were particularly interested in them, because we know how to use the electronic medical record, and we have a particular set of capabilities, but at the heart, we’re a 23-hospital healthcare system with a bunch of physicians, and we’d like to leverage better what we have to improve care.

What’s involved specifically in your initiative?

Fred Holston: We’re not just ‘me, too.’ We’re interested in getting the ideas from our nurses, our physicians, and do something with those ideas. There are so many ideas out there that aren’t there yet, and clinicians will say, if we could change the way we do things, we could impact care. And the question is, where does that get legs? And part of the impact here is… And so to the extent that we have a shop like 3D printers and soldering irons and such, you know, we don’t want to create software, but we’re looking at prototypes. So we now have  a space for our collaborative partners. We have three themes that we’re working towards, and one theme is with our partners and collaborators, and it’s really about helping them move their systems forward and getting them fully vetted in healthcare. Sometimes, we wind up buying solutions that don’t quite do the job. And we wanted to create partnerships where we were involved upstream in the process of optimization.

Probst: We mentioned Sotera; XI3, they make hardware. But we also have Intel and Dell as partners in the lab, and also some service partners that are interested in telehealth, for example. So it is a broad spectrum of partners. We do like these small partners, though, because they’re so aggressive and creative.

Holston:  So XI3 and Intel will be listed as founding partners; and Dell, Century Link, MedApp, and Sotera, are the first collaborators.

What has the reaction been from executives of those vendor companies?

Holston: I think their reaction is very excited, because of Intermountain’s reputation and drive towards quality; I think they see it as very positive for their business. I think they’re excited to leverage knowledge. Being clear that the lab itself isn’t the core, it’s 34,000 people who have the ability to influence the ideas. We’re talking about people who take care of our communities, being involved in helping to assess, and contributing to the optimizing of, new care tools.

So this links your clinicians to technology innovation?

Absolutely, and some of our best ideas have really come from the clinicians. And I was telling David before that some clinicians have had great ideas, and we’ve prototyped things and showed them to nurses and physicians. So yeah, this has been a great outlet for our clinical providers. And there are also ideas coming across for patient flow and financial IS development, as well.

Is this a trend that people should be aware of? It seems that it will be very important for clinicians to be involved from the ground up on a lot of the important innovations that need to take place going forward, in terms of improving care delivery through IT.

Probst: I think you’re right. No one knows how to provide healthcare better than physicians and nurses; and we have thousands of them, and if we can give them a vehicle for development, we want to. Also, I’d like to add that we’ve been asked by three or four other health systems whether they could join us. And we’re open to that. Our mission is to be a model healthcare system here, and so we’re not only open to that, we’re encouraging it, because we know we don’t have any corner on innovation.

Holston: I think if we’re going to impact healthcare, this is one of those things that has to be done, and if we’re going to be a model for healthcare, this is one of those things that has to happen.

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