Weird pairings can have big impact in healthcare innovation

Weird pairings can have big impact in healthcare innovation

For three days in late October 2015, MaRS was the site of the Innovation Learning Network’s InPerson Meeting, a meeting place for health leaders, visionaries and entrepreneurs from Canada, the United States and Europe. The Innovation Learning Network (ILN) is a membership network made up of healthcare systems, health foundations, safety net providers, design and innovation firms, and technology companies, all united around a common goal: to make healthcare better through good design.

Innovation Learning Network crowd at MaRS
Under the theme “Converge: The Art and Science of Weird Pairings and Engineered Random Collisions,” more than 80 health innovators pushed themselves to look beyond the traditional domain and disciplines of health to connect with outside ideas.

A partnership between MaRS and Saint Elizabeth, the ILN InPerson Meeting hosted leading health innovation teams from around the world to share and exchange knowledge and insights from their experiences modernizing their respective health systems. Under the theme “Converge: The Art and Science of Weird Pairings and Engineered Random Collisions,” more than 80 health innovators from across North America and Europe pushed themselves to look beyond the traditional domain and disciplines of health to connect with outside ideas. Through this process, the participants emerged with an enhanced toolkit and a set of relationships for completing their hard and important daily work of advancing innovation in highly complex health systems worldwide. Here is an overview of a few highlights from the three-day innovation exchange program.

Inspiration from Europe

Lucien Engelen, director of the REshape Center at Radboud University Medical Center, Netherlands: The rise of the empowered patient

Lucien Engelen and his team are on a mission to transform healthcare to a state where health system players regard patients as equal partners. He founded the REshape Center, an innovation partner of MaRS Health, with the goal of integrating the self-empowered patient into how care is researched, designed and delivered in the Netherlands.

In his talk, Lucien emphasized the importance of listening to patients and involving them at the very earliest stages of any project. One way his university acted on this key message was by hiring a chief listening officer whose sole job is to listen to patients and their family members. Lucien believes that one of the reasons that many e-health projects fail is because healthcare providers do not listen to patients.

Radboud University has also taken a unique approach to educating its medical students in a more patient-centric model. Students are now required to select a family member with chronic illness and to follow that individual as he or she journeys through the healthcare system for the duration of their medical training. Another initiative is aimed at providing every citizen in the Netherlands with the ability to connect to their healthcare providers by videoconference from their homes.

Hereismydata, one of REshape’s initiatives, provides a platform for citizens to take control of their own health records by connecting disparate health data from multiple sources into one patient-controlled dashboard. The goal of the platform is to help patients gain a better understanding of their health and to share their data and insights with their family members, friends and any third-party entities of their choosing. Interestingly, in Ontario, MaRS has been hard at work for well over a year on a very similar initiative called MyHealth, a gateway to seamlessly connect Ontario citizens with their formal medical data, as well as with informal patient-generated data.

Erik Landriault, trade advisor for the Royal Danish Consulate: Keeping Denmark in check

In his talk, Erik Landriault provided insights from his experience with the Danish Trade Council in Toronto, where he works to promote Danish health companies’ exports and business interests in Canada. Erik highlighted three interesting policy constructs that are emblematic of how Denmark is positioning itself as a global leader in health innovation.

First, Denmark is a net exporter of its own homegrown innovative medical technologies. The country has the largest commercial drug development pipeline in Europe and is considered to be a leader in medtech and e-health technology innovation. Denmark is ranked as the third-best country in the world after the United States and Singapore for the development of biotechnology. This is because there are hundreds of trade commissioners like Erik who actively facilitate the international scale-up of health technologies originating from Denmark.

The second insight is the major push to drive efficiencies and effectiveness in the Danish healthcare system. As a country, Denmark excels on multiple frontiers. However, in recent years, the nation has shown weak productivity growth. To address this issue, Denmark is instituting mandatory productivity reporting for every public sector, including hospitals and healthcare centres. Every year, hospitals are required to deliver the same service for each disease group with fewer resources than the year before. Over the years, Denmark has been able to increase public satisfaction with healthcare services and improve productivity and quality in the sector, while also keeping health expenditures in check.

Finally, like REshape in the Netherlands, Denmark places the patient at the centre of interactions and designs its healthcare system around this concept. Denmark currently has one of the shortest average lengths of hospital stays in Europe and is among the leaders in the world in operationalizing e-health due to significant investments in national health information technology infrastructure.

Twitter Party: #HCLDR and #ILN15 co-hosted a social media chat to source new ideas from healthcare leaders worldwide

At the end of Day 1, healthcare innovators were invited to take part (both in person and online) in a Twitter party, following the same theme of Converge: The Art and Science of Weird Pairings and Engineered Random Collisions. Colin Hung of the Healthcare Leadership Blog led the live chat, inspiring discussion with the following topic prompts.

  1. Why is out-of-the-box thinking/innovation in healthcare so difficult?
  2. What healthcare innovations have you seen from disciplines outside of healthcare? Please share results/impact if possible.
  3. How might we encourage random collisions/weird pairings (with healthcare outsiders) to drive innovation?
  4. What areas in healthcare would you most like to see tackled with an outside-in approach?

Over 100 people took part in this discussion, generating nearly 1,000 tweets. To see the participants’ insightful responses, check out the tweet transcript from Symplur.

Colin Hung hosting the #HCLDR Twitter Party
Colin Hung hosting the #HCLDR Twitter Party

Inspiration from North America

Snapshots of health innovation projects that successfully exploit weird pairings

Often, the strangest pairings make for the most interesting solutions. By sharing their experiences, the ILN members sought to inspire similar weird pairings in other organizations.

Participants at the ILN InPerson Meeting were encouraged to share quick snapshots of initiatives from their own organizations and communities (predominantly in North America). These snapshots highlighted instances where breaking through silos and creating new connections resulted in better care.

Health system Weird pairing Situation Result
Kaiser Permanente Medication administration + airline safety Hospitals are chaotic environments. Nurses preparing medications often encounter distractions that, in turn, result in higher medication error rates. Kaiser Permanente looked to the airline industry to determine how pilots maintain their focus despite their potentially chaotic environments. To reduce errors, the Federal Aviation Administration implemented a regulation called the Sterile Cockpit Rule. It requires pilots to refrain from conducting non-essential activities during critical phases of flight (which generally occur below 10,000 feet). To implement a similar distraction-free environment, nurses put on a special sash while preparing medications. The sash serves as a do-not-disturb signal, ensuring that no interruptions are made unless an emergency arises. As a result, medication error rates have decreased.
HealthPartners Regions Hospital Firefighters + medical house calls Upon discharge from hospital, patients and their family members are eager to get home. However, this eagerness, along with other factors such as fatigue and confusion, can result in them misunderstanding their doctors’ orders. Patients are therefore unable to follow the care plan, resulting in high readmission rates. A new bill identified a new classification of firefighter and granted them expanded scope of practice. The day after discharge, patients who opt in receive a visit from firefighters. During the visit, the firefighters ensure that the individual is in a safe and comfortable environment (checking for smoke detectors and potential fall hazards). The firefighters also check on the individual (testing their blood pressure, for example), ensure his or her prescriptions are filled, and review the diet and medication details outlined by the hospital. These visits do not take the place of regular medical visits, but they have prevented the rapid readmissions that hospitals aim to avoid.
Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center Doctors + community dinners The hospital is situated in a high-poverty and high-crime area. Despite the state-of-the-art technology and world-renowned expertise available, one in four babies is born prematurely. Research revealed that medical doctors were not trusted advisors in this community. Instead, new mothers looked to their own mothers and families for advice. To establish meaningful connections with these families, the hospital established Family Strong dinners. These community feasts allow doctors to build relationships with the families through informal conversations and breaking bread.
HopeLab Video games + cancer Teens with cancer did not fully understand their illnesses and medications.   Consequently, teens were unable to see the impact their health behaviours could have on the outcomes of their cancer treatments. HopeLab developed the Re-Mission video game, which takes place inside of the bodies of fictional cancer patients. The protagonist, Roxxi, is tasked with battling cancer cells, eliminating bacterial infections and managing side effects relating to cancer treatment. Teens who played Re-Mission acquired cancer-related knowledge faster, maintained higher levels of chemotherapy in their blood and took their antibiotics more consistently when compared to a control group of peers. As a result of their improved adherence to treatment, the teens’ cancers were significantly less likely to recur.


Tech Fair: 13 emerging health technology companies used weird pairings to develop wicked solutions to unmet patient needs

Here are some of the highlights. 

  1. Eve Medical: Through a collaboration of industrial designers and health professionals, Eve Medical invented HerSwab to screen for sexually transmitted infections.
  2. Muse: Muse started as a product to teach consumers how to meditate, but now patients use it to help treat mental illness and addictions, to manage obesity and more.
  3. Center for Behavioral Intervention Technologies, Northwestern University: Ken Weingardt showcased a mobile application that can accurately predict if a person is depressed based on how often they move around and use their mobile phone.
  4. Komodo OpenLab: Tablet and smartphone users with limited mobility due to spinal cord injury are now able to read independently, communicate and control home operations through speech with Tecla.
  5. A startup out of the Stanford School Medicine, specializes in 3D and virtual reality visualization to help healthcare providers and patients get an in-depth look at the human body. device’s device helps healthcare providers and patients get an in-depth look at the human body.
eSight exhibiting its glasses for the blind at the ILN Tech Fair
eSight exhibiting its glasses for the blind at the ILN Tech Fair 

Innovation Safaris: Finding new inspiration from unlikely sites across Toronto

Organizations approach similar challenges in different ways. Immersing oneself in the context of others allows one to observe techniques, processes or approaches to innovation and to consider the ways in which they can be applied to the health innovation context.

On Day 2 of the ILN event, participants had the opportunity to visit and draw insights and inspiration from local innovators at unique sites around Toronto. Participants were divided into groups and travelled by foot, public transit or car to 10 surprise “safari” destinations across the city. The destinations were diverse, spanning industries, workplace cultures and business models. However, all 10 destinations were united in one aspect: they value and encourage innovation.

After travelling to new environments and hearing directly from organizations about their unique approaches, participants were inspired to look at their own challenges in new ways and to apply others’ innovative ideas to their own contexts. Upon their return, participants debriefed and shared the insights they gained from each location. Here are some key takeaways from three of the safari sites.

  • Ontario College of Art and Design University’s Strategic Foresight and Innovation team: Tackle big problems with foresight. Define your vision of the future 25 years from now and then work backward.
  • Centre for Social Innovation: Culture is key for innovation. Pre-screen individuals to ensure you have shared values and continuously nurture your culture with shared activities.
  • Autodesk Research: Create an artist-in-residence program. Give the artist the role of encouraging new ideas and tackling existing problems in fresh ways.

For more insights from the other seven safari sites and for information on these innovative local businesses (including Porter, Evergreen Brick Works, the Toronto Public Library, Food Starter, the Globe and Mail, the St. John Ambulance Therapy Dog Program and the Centre for Research on Inner City Health), consult the Toronto 2015 ILN InPerson Safari Synopses.

In summary: Serendipity can—and must—be structured to maximize collisions and fuel health innovation

During the three days of exchange of innovation methods at MaRS, participants were exposed to a broad range of innovative approaches to diverse contexts.

Participants emerged with a resolute conviction to look well outside of healthcare—globally, nationally and locally—to seek out problem-solving inspiration for the issues they face. Additionally, participants saw (and experienced!) numerous instances of bizarre mashups and odd pairings that affirmed the thesis of the whole event: that the strangest combinations often have the greatest impact.

Stepping away from the ILN event at MaRS, participants committed to seek out and foster environments that could create weird pairings as a means to improve the healthcare experience for individuals in their local, national and global environments.