Skip to main content

For health systems, where financial challenges persist and hospitals undergo frequent changes, fostering innovation has become a necessity for both day-to-day operations and the future of care delivery. Innovation is no longer simply about shaping the future of the industry; it’s a crucial element for organizations to thrive. But the adoption of an innovative mindset throughout an organization remains a challenge for many.

In a recent episode of The Better Care Podcast, Bo Bartholomew, CEO of EvidenceCare, interviewed Bill Sheahan, Chief Innovation Officer at MedStar Health and Executive Director of the MedStar Institute for Innovation, and Bo Wilkes, President of Ballad Ventures and Managing Director of Ballad Health Innovation. They shared valuable insights on fostering innovation within healthcare organizations with key steps and strategies essential for driving innovation in the current landscape of healthcare.

The following article highlights some of the key themes they discussed, which we’ve summarized into seven steps to create a culture of innovation in a healthcare organization.


Creating a Culture of Innovation at a Health System


1. Getting Comfortable with Change 

Embracing innovation begins with overcoming resistance to change. The sentiment of “this is the way we’ve always done it” can impede progress. To foster innovation, organizations should recognize the need for foundational change management work and address any pre-existing norms within teams that may hinder the flexibility needed for innovative thinking.

Navigating this challenge can be especially intricate for health systems. They must satisfy community expectations in patient care while addressing the imperative for change and innovation to ensure sustainability. Bill Sheahan highlighted this balance when he said, “We must keep in mind that our communities still depend on the services we offer today. However, we also acknowledge the need for change.”


2. Establishing the Right Culture

Innovation doesn’t thrive in every environment. Establishing a culture that welcomes creativity, collaboration, and learning from experimentation is crucial for fostering innovation. In healthcare, where experts strive for perfection in care, professionals need reassurance that trying out new approaches and adapting are essential for progress. Emphasizing the practical side of experimenting with fresh ideas helps create a company culture that supports innovation, paving the way for continuous improvement and growth. Bo Wilkes explained what the cultural shift has looked like at Ballad Health:

“It’s truly exciting to observe the cultural shift and lead an incredible team that can engage with various facets of the organization. Lately, executives have actively sought us out, expressing a desire to be more involved beyond their daily responsibilities. They are motivated to think differently, welcome challenges, and seek to understand not only the current status quo but also what the future holds. Their enthusiasm lies in actively shaping the future of our organization and, in the broader sense, the entire industry.” –Bo Wilkes


3. Tailoring Your Approach

Understanding the unique dynamics within each department and tailoring the approach accordingly can contribute to a more effective integration of innovation. It’s essential to foster an environment where the benefits of innovation are communicated clearly, allowing each part of the organization to see its relevance and potential impact.

In different sections of the organization, there may be varying levels of comfort with embracing innovation. Recognizing these differences is crucial, and while promoting a collective culture of innovation is valuable, it doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be boundaries in place.

“It’s crucial not to expend energy fruitlessly pushing against areas unprepared for change, particularly where leaders aren’t aligned with the need for transformation.” -Bill Sheahan


4. Aligning Innovation with the Overall Strategy

Successful innovation initiatives align with the organization’s strategic plan. Clearly understanding how each initiative fits into long-term goals and operating priorities ensures a focused and purposeful approach. Bill explained what this alignment looks like for his team at MedStar Health:

“Our strength lies in an improved understanding of how these initiatives integrate into our overarching five-year strategic plan and align with annual operating priorities. The careful sequencing of these efforts is vital as we progress towards the future state outlined in our plan. Clarity is paramount at the project level—understanding objectives, change management components, and proving tangible value are equally crucial.” -Bill Sheahan

Bill shared that MedStar Health channels their innovation efforts into three key areas to help prioritize and focus their energy.

“Firstly, we prioritize strategic choices like digital transformation, care management, and population health, committing substantial energy over a four to five-year span. Secondly, we focus on external breakthroughs, with a recent emphasis on the transformative potential of gen AI in healthcare. Finally, we address emerging needs, exemplified by tactical pain points like the nursing workforce shortage affecting us and the industry.” -Bill Sheahan


5. Measuring and Demonstrating ROI

While measuring return on investment in healthcare can be challenging, organizations should emphasize the importance of quantifying even directional ROI. This provides insights into the effectiveness of initiatives and justifies their value. In today’s healthcare economy, ROI must be a top priority when implementing new initiatives and increasing innovation efforts.

“I spend time with our teams, making sure we commit to new initiatives for thirty days. We plan carefully, track data, and manage execution through our innovation team. Quantifying the impact is crucial, especially in healthcare. Challenges include figuring out how our changes affect things like throughput, revenue, and call reduction.” -Bo Wilkes


“This scalability is underpinned by the need for challenging ROI measurements, even though it’s difficult. We can’t use that difficulty as an excuse; we must ensure that our initiatives are effective and impactful.” -Bill Sheahan


6. Addressing Scaling Challenges

Scaling innovative initiatives is incredibly challenging. It is crucial to address the need for change management, involve operators in the scaling process, and integrate innovation into the company culture. Often, exploring and building innovations is the easier part, but scaling requires enormous effort and consideration.

“Exploring and experimenting with new ideas on a small scale across the organization is relatively straightforward. However, scaling proves to be challenging due to the necessity for widespread change and obtaining buy-in from the core business. It’s crucial to ensure that operators, who are integral to innovation, are part of the transformation process and can seamlessly operate on the other side. The experience during the pandemic has enhanced our ability in this regard. Leveraging this improvement, and observing similar efforts nationwide, we aim to execute scaling more effectively for transformative initiatives.” -Bill Sheahan


7. Committing to Continuous Improvement

Creating an innovative healthcare organization is an ongoing process of continuous improvement and transformation. It involves learning from experiences, adjusting strategies, and refining processes to contribute to sustained progress and success. This commitment requires continuously promoting a culture that values learning from both successes and setbacks.

As the healthcare landscape evolves, organizations dedicated to continuous improvement remain agile, ready to adapt their approaches based on emerging trends, technological advancements, and the changing needs of healthcare professionals, patients, and communities.

For the full interview, listen to Episode 11 of The Better Care Podcast.