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Programmed for Innovation

October 1, 2006
by John Glaser, Ph.D., Mary Finlay, Cindy Bero and Steve Flammini
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The Innovation Program at Partners HealthCare

Innovation is a desirable property of any information systems (IS) organization in healthcare. All IS organizations would like to have staff who routinely have ideas about new ways to apply technology, improve clinical and operational processes and enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of the IS organization.

Partners HealthCare has a history of information technology innovation. Despite this history, Partners' IS leadership was not convinced that it was doing an adequate job of broadly encouraging and enabling its staff to be creative and consider alternative ways of working. To advance the Partners IS innovation ability, the Innovation Program was created in 2005.

Program vision and objectives

The program's vision was to improve the ability of IS staff to have a more innovative perspective as they addressed the issues and challenges faced in the course of their day-to-day work. To achieve this vision, the program had four components:

· Research, analyze and present an approach to solving complex business problems facing Partners.

· "Experience trips" to organizations and settings that were engaged in innovation.

· Small group discussions with senior Partners leadership about innovation and the challenges facing Partners.

· Senior IS leaders (the four authors) who would serve as mentors to the program participants

Business problems

The students were asked to "solve" a major business issue facing Partners. These issues were real, complex and there was uncertainty about the solution. These issues would force the students to tackle a problem and domain that was well outside their current set of responsibilities and work.

The students were placed in teams with each team being assigned one of the following problems:

Patient Interaction. One of the primary ways patients interact with Partners hospitals is via the telephone. Patients request appointments, ask questions about bills, find doctors and ask directions. What telecommunications technologies and services — voice mail systems, interactive voice response — could be applied to transform the patient experience?

Regional Data Exchange. Massachusetts is in the early stages of developing a regional clinical data exchange (MASHARE). MASHARE is confronting significant technical, financial, operational and privacy challenges. Students were to develop an 18-month plan to create and manage this exchange such that it becomes sustainable.

Population Management. In addition to the care they provide to individual patients, Partners physicians are responsible for the overall quality of care and outcomes for populations of chronically ill patients. What kind of technology solutions could students imagine that would help Partners physicians manage these populations? How might Partners target specific patients in the population and raise the overall health of these important populations?

IT as a Commodity. In 2003, Nicholas Carr wrote the controversial article "IT Doesn't Matter." In that article he asserted that infrastructure technologies would be ubiquitous as their availability increases and their cost decreases — as they become commodities. Could Partners offer subscribers up to 1 GB of e-mail storage for free? How could the organization make network connectivity free? Does Partners have too much tied up in the non-differentiating levels of platforms?

Guided by their mentors, the teams were asked to develop an approach to address these business challenges. This required the teams to interview internal stakeholders and outside experts, review the literature, and conduct site visits.

Based on the data gathered, the teams were asked to prepare a presentation outlining their findings and defending their recommendations.

Experience trips

The experience trips were intended to expose the students to settings and groups that were engaged in innovation as a core activity. Trips include visits to:

The Massachusetts General Hospital Operating Room of the Future (ORF). The ORF is an operating room where new technologies and improvements in surgery are designed and evaluated. For example, the ORF could be used to determine if room design changes and the use of RFID greatly enhance operating room throughput. It was Founded in 1994, is an online global careers network. with sites in 23 countries. The visit to was focused on their innovation lab.


The program participants held informal group discussions with members of the Partners leadership team and selected external leaders. The discussants included a trustee, the Partners CEO, the chief nursing officer for the Massachusetts GeneralHospital, the CEO for the Partners network of community physicians, the Partners chief financial officer, the director of the entrepreneur program at Simmons School of Management, the head of the MIT AgeLab, and the CEO of a Partners community hospital.

The invited speakers discussed their experiences with fostering innovation, their assessment of the challenges facing Partners, the state of the healthcare or information technology industries and their career.