Full Nelson: Healthcare Innovation: Kaiser's Garfield Center

Provider's lab offers an exciting peek into the technological future of patient care.
An Innovation Mission

While all of this, from the digital operating room to the life-like, simulated patient dummies, is exciting, it sure looks costly. I couldn't get any dollar figures from Kaiser's innovation chief, Heather Wilson (actual title: VP, Innovation & Advanced Technology), but we did discuss the Garfield Center's funding. It's supported from the top levels at Kaiser, Wilson says, and it isn't necessarily measured in terms of ROI. "It's difficult to measure innovation," she says. "It could be years before you know what makes a difference. It's more about showing members we listen and are trying to advance care delivery. It's part of our brand and marketing, our strategic future."

Kaiser wants to be known as an innovator, and the Garfield Center sits at the center of that reputation. More important, it serves as place where chances can be taken, and people can fail safely.

Wilson is measured on how many innovations Kaiser gets across the O-gap and into production, and she sees part of her job as infusing the innovation DNA throughout the company. She asks regional Kaiser employees to be "innovation hunters," always on the lookout for new ideas and new technology.

The center hosts technology demonstration days once a month. No PowerPoint allowed. Partners need to deploy the technology. Garfield also hosts innovation workshops, not just focusing on how to find ideas, but also on how to sell them internally and to operationalize them once they get buy-in.

Chronic disease prevention has become a major health care industry focus these days, given that the top five account for 75% of healthcare costs, according to Wilson. Kaiser built an algorithm that's part of its Carepoint program (focused on chronic conditions) that sits on top of a medical record, mining data and identifying patients at risk. Once identified, patients get contacted and become part of a care program where they're monitored by a physician.

Kaiser is working now on predictive analytics: combining genetic information with environmental factors and a patient's current physical state, and not just for predicting future health problems, but also to help determine an optimal physical health.

As part of the prevention focus, Kaiser runs a program where it turns teens into health advocates. As the epidemic of teen obesity and chronic diabetes grows, it affects other chronic conditions. Kaiser started a pilot program in Virginia to educate teens on things like their food choices, and how their environment can affect them physically. These teens, in turn, also help educate their parents. The younger generation can even help parents get over techno-gaps -- learn to receive information (like lab results) electronically, for instance, or make appointments online.

Kaiser's health plans and healthcare services regularly rank highly (for example, in US News and World Report's health plan rankings and California's Office of the Patient Advocate Report Card).

Stitching It All Up

Some of the technology (gesture-based computing, for example) is still at least five years away, but without places like the Garfield Center, Wilson says, these technologies would be even further away. There is a balance, she says, between simply having the technology and knowing people are ready for it and whether it fits into a hospital's workflow.

These programs, this center, this level of innovation are enough to get anyone's heart rate up, not just because of the fancy toys and technology, but because Kaiser is investing in innovation, not for the sake of ROI, but for the company's future, and because it has faith that its investments will make a difference.

Fritz Nelson is the editorial director for InformationWeek and the Executive Producer of TechWebTV. Fritz writes about startups and established companies alike, but likes to exploit multiple forms of media into his writing.

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