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Helping Safety Net Providers Innovate

September 16, 2015
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Center for Care Innovations helps health centers find new ways to address access issues, patient engagement, social determinants of health

A group of nine New Jersey safety net organizations is meeting this week to begin brainstorming sessions on new ways to address access to care, patient engagement and social determinants of health.

The New Jersey Innovation Catalyst Initiative is designed to help safety net healthcare organizations solve problems by thinking and working differently, often by integrating new technology solutions.

Funded by the Nicholson Foundation, the Initiative is being launched in partnership with the San Francisco-based Center for Care Innovations (CCI), based on work CCI has done the past few years with safety net organizations in California.

I had a chance to interview Veenu Aulakh, CCI’s executive director, about her organization’s work in California and the upcoming work in New Jersey.

She said the nonprofit CCI, which has been providing safety net organizations technical assistance for about 15 years, started the innovation work three years ago to spark new ideas, encourage risk taking and spread innovations that work. The training is done in partnership with gravitytank, an innovation design firm based in Chicago, and Kaiser Permanente’s innovation consultancy.

“After people go through an initial three-day training, they participate in applying these skills to projects in their own organization, and we provide them coaches when they get stuck and an online learning community where they can exchange ideas,” Aulakh said. “In California, what we found is that a lot of them end up partnering with technology companies or leveraging technology in interesting ways.”

She said that although safety net organizations are resource-constrained, there are some new and relatively inexpensive technologies becoming available. One California organization provided patients who were being discharged from the hospital with a cell phone with just a few buttons to push, a card and directions. “It basically was a webex connection to have a video appointment post-hospital discharge,” she said.  “That is not high-cost technology. They made it simple, and it made a huge difference in terms of the patient being better connected to her primary care team when she was out of the hospital.”

Other technology vendors are developing products that work well in safety net settings, she added. For instance, in California one product getting piloted quite a bit is called Polyglot. It is a solution that takes medication information and simplifies it for low-literacy populations and translates it into 18 different languages. “That is a perfect solution for safety net settings, and with light integration you can make it seamless with the EHR,” she said. “That has been getting a lot of uptake.”

The New Jersey participants include CompleteCare Health Network, a group of federally qualified health centers (FQHCs) in Cape May, Cumberland, and Gloucester counties; Henry J. Austin Health Center, an FQHC in Trenton; Hospital Alliance of New Jersey, a trade group of 17 safety-net hospitals; and New Jersey Primary Care Association, a trade group of 20 FQHCs. Also included are Newark Beth Israel Medical Center; Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick; St. Joseph’s Regional Medical Center in Paterson; Trinitas Regional Medical Center in Elizabeth; and Visiting Nurse Association Health Group Inc.

The Initiative will support executives who are interested in enhancing their knowledge of human-centered design, building or improving innovation strategies, and applying them to critical challenges in their organizations.

With grants of up to $35,000, with additional reimbursement for travel costs, the Initiative is divided into two phases. In Phase 1, with a grant of $10,000, each selected organization’s team of three to five will receive training in human-centered design and innovation. Then they apply these skills to the problems identified in their proposals to create innovative solutions.

At the end of Phase 1, teams will have proposed the solution they would be interested in testing and implementing in Phase 2. Teams that progress to the second phase will be eligible to receive an additional $25,000, as well as further coaching and support.

Aulakh said the participants have a wide array of job titles ranging from medical directors to nurses to chief operating officers to quality improvement executives. “it is more of a mindset issue and being well-positioned in the organization to facilitate change,” she said. “In the bigger public hospital systems, it may be more important to have a physician lead the initiative.”

She said the Initiative process helps identify which groups are embedding innovation into the fabric of the organization and are open to looking at new technologies, making cultural changes, and getting their leadership involved.  “This is one way to test out which organizations are really serious and want to go down this path,” she said. "If there are good ideas developed through this process, the Nicholson Foundation will think about putting more money behind some of the ideas to help develop and scale them.”

I told her that Healthcare Informatics would check back next year once the New Jersey organizations have had time to develop some of their ideas.