Fostering Innovation in the UNC Health Care System

March 14, 2018
UNC Health Care System's Center for Health Innovation helps employees pilot and scale new ideas and builds partnerships with other organizations and startups focused on digital health.

As associate director of the Center for Health Innovation, Carol Lewis directs innovation efforts across the University of North Carolina School of Medicine and UNC Health Care System. She also is one of the conference chairs for the upcoming Health IT Summit in Raleigh, N.C. Healthcare Informatics recently asked her to describe some of her center’s work.

How long has UNC had a Center for Health Innovation? Were you involved in its setup?

Lewis: The center has been around a little over five years. We started some work on innovation projects about two years prior to that, so I have been involved for almost seven years.

Do most innovation centers created by health systems look alike?

The focus of innovation centers varies significantly across organizations. Some centers focus on commercialization opportunities or partnering with external startups. Some are focused on research-oriented discovery and innovation within the research world. Yet another group is focused on improving healthcare operations and delivery, and there are probably some hybrids.

Carol Lewis

How would you describe the focus at UNC?

My team is primarily focused on trying to bring disruptive innovation to healthcare delivery, as well as getting involved in translational research. We also sometimes work with external startups.

I read that one of your team’s approaches involve Digital Health Innovation Sprints? Can you describe those?

The Digital Health Innovation Sprint is a new model we created last year to try to engage a broader community in identifying digital health solutions. We have taken the design thinking methodology and built a series of interactive events around it. We have a design day when we do a deep-dive problem discovery workshop; a ‘define’ day, where we work to define solutions, all the way through to a demo day, where teams that have gone through the process can pitch their prototypes and ideas. It is designed to bring in clinicians, administrators and people from the ecosystem such as software developers, hardware experts, designers, and entrepreneurs to think about how to create solutions to solve a real healthcare problem. We bring together a really diverse group of participants in the process.

Do they come to you as teams already formed or do you help people build connections and create teams?

Both. Sometimes a whole team will decide to go through the sprint. We also ensure that early in the process individuals interested in participating have opportunities to form or join teams.

I read that the sprint this year was about medication adherence in patients over 50.

Yes. We partnered with AARP to launch that sprint because we thought that was a great challenge question that would align very well with our digital health focus and AARP’s mission.

Internally, you offer Innovation Pilot Awards to UNC employees. How does that program work?

Any clinician or employee of the UNC Healthcare System or the UNC School of Medicine can apply for up to $50,000 of pilot funding in order to test a novel idea they have and would like to try to see how well it works. We offer those on an annual cycle in a request for proposal process. We usually get about 20 applications a year and we try to fund up to four projects.

What are some of the biggest challenges clinicians with entrepreneurial ideas face when they have a good idea?

Sometimes it is funding. They need money to get initial data or a minimum viable prototype. Sometimes it is a technology challenge. They are clinicians but they may know very little about bringing in new technologies to solve problems. Often we help them partner with technologists or our own computer science department within the university. Sometimes we see legal and regulatory barriers. We had a cardiologist who believed he could improve the diagnosis of aortic stenosis in primary care clinics if he could train them how to use a handheld ultrasound device, but because of the Stark anti-kickback regulations, we had trouble giving the primary care practices the devices in order to participate.

Conversely, what tends to be the hardest thing for large organizations to do in terms of recognizing and adopting innovations? And are there things your organization can do to ease that process?

There is always a tension between current operations and introducing something novel. There are always complexities when you are trying to scale things across an organization the size of UNC. I think that is the role that our center has been very effective playing within the UNC system. Most of the focus of our resources is providing project management support, data and analytics support, strategic direction, guidance and expertise. We are facilitating with other internal teams how to get through that process of moving ideas forward and getting them piloted or scaled. That is where having a dedicated team like ours is so valuable.

What is the most rewarding aspect of your job?

Our internal customers are so appreciative of the assistance we can provide in areas where they are not expert or may struggle to navigate on their own, so that is very rewarding to know we are helping them. More than that, as an organization we are all about  seeking novel and better way to care for our patients. So much of what I am fortunate enough to be involved in does have the potential to significantly impact patient care. It is really rewarding to assist a team in figuring out how to make that care better.

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