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Cleveland Clinic’s Former Chief Innovation Officer: Why Health Systems Must Become Innovation Test-Beds

January 24, 2016
by Mark Hagland
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The Cleveland Clinic’s former chief innovation officer, Thomas Graham, M.D., shares his perspectives on the need for the leaders of patient care organizations to become test-beds for technological innovation

Earlier this month, McGraw-Hill and the Cleveland Clinic announced the publication of a new book, Innovation the Cleveland Clinic Way: Transforming Healthcare by Putting Ideas to Work, by Thomas Graham, M.D., an orthopedic surgeon who until December had been chief innovation officer at the Cleveland Clinic organization since 2010. This month, he became chairman of the Lake Nona Institute in Florida.

According to the press release issued earlier this month, “The book offers a blueprint that businesses and organizations – of any size and in any industry –can follow to create their own winning culture of discovery and innovation. Readers,” the press release says, “will learn about: Cleveland Clinic’s Six Degrees of Innovation; the powerful “INVENT algorithm for speeding new ideas to market; why creativity is overrated and why collaboration is not; the best ways to critique invention, reject ideas, calm investors and keep everyone striving toward new discoveries.” Innovation the Cleveland Clinic Way is the third in the publishing company’s “Cleveland Clinic Way” series, which began with The Cleveland Clinic Way: Lessons in Excellence from One of the World’s Leading Healthcare Organizations, by Cleveland Clinic president and CEO Toby Cosgrove, M.D. in 2014, and continued in 2015 with Service Fanatics: How to Build a Superior Patient Experience the Cleveland Clinic Way, by James Merlino, M.D.

Shortly after the announcement of the new book’s publication, Dr. Graham spoke with HCI Editor-in-Chief Mark Hagland about the book and its implications for the U.S. healthcare industry. Below are excerpts from that interview.

What led you to write this book?

We arrived at a time where the development of our basic architecture or infrastructure to perform innovation, which we literally define as putting ideas to work, or take transcendent thought and put it into practice, it had gotten to a level of gravitas and breadth, that we were being sought out by essentially everybody else, not only in healthcare, but in other industries, to tell them how we do it. And we maintain that innovation is something that can be democratized and spread; it shouldn’t’ be thought of as just a single institution’s competitive advantage; it’s a platform for collaboration. So we sought to share our learnings not only from nine decades of our existence, but especially from the past two decades, in which we’ve created Cleveland Clinic Innovations, our innovation engine. So it just seemed that our level of maturity and trackable outcomes coincided with the clamor from other healthcare organizations and even organizations outside healthcare, to receive learnings. And I was very proud to be the person to be selected to tell the story.

Tom Graham, M.D.

You’re an orthopedic surgeon, correct?

Yes, a practicing orthopedic surgeon and a leader at Cleveland Clinic until last month. Back in the mid-1990s, I was trying to build an identity in my specialty and trying to contribute academically, and I went to our CEO at the time, Fred Loop, and asked him how innovation was handled. We were a few years after the Bigh-Dole Act… I credit people like Joe Hahn, Dr. Loop, Dr. Cosgrove, with enabling innovation. We had to find a way to make sure we could create development. And that was the uniqueness to which Cleveland Clinic was committed. I had left CC in 2000 to become CEO of the National Hand Center. It was starting to identify and help gestate the intellectual assets, and I returned in 2010. So just imagine, theretofore, ideas could just have lain fallow. Or the classic—for an orthopedic surgeon—you couldn’t wait to meet with the detail man, the representative of an orthopedic implant company, you saw an implant fail three times in a row, and you knew how that could be fixed. So we sought to bring the appropriate infrastructure into the walls of the clinic, to not only protect but build infrastructure, and work with the investment community. So it kind of aggregated. And it resulted in the success we’ve enjoyed—76 spinout companies, thousands of patent applications, probably $80 million returned to our on-campus inventors. Our state has been a great partner. And the only net new job-creating companies in our state have been among companies less than five years old. And that’s true nationwide, too.

So I just think that innovation is a core principle that almost any institution or organization should be seeking now to be part of its industry.

How do you see innovation in the context of being an imperative in U.S. healthcare?




The US Healthcare system is inherently against innovation. It is protective if status quo, unfortunately. Foundamental changed are required to make thus as a reality!