Esade Entrepreneurship Institute

This article is based on knowledge insights by Marcel Planellas and Ivan Bofarull

Sparking innovation in hospitals is a challenging endeavour. In their publication in Harvard Deusto, Marcel Planellas and Ivan Bofarull discuss how healthcare organisations can use innovation to create value and improve patient experience.

"Innovation processes in hospitals tend to be less defined and their success is more difficult to quantify," says Planellas. "One of the main difficulties when managing innovation in healthcare environments is the lack of a direct relationship between investment in innovation and achievement of results in patient experience."

To gain insight into innovation in healthcare, the Esade academics worked with Jorge Juan Fernández from EIT Health to analyse the pioneering innovation strategy of Sant Joan de Déu Hospital (Barcelona Children's Hospital).

Healthcare innovation creates value and improves patient experience

The hospital initiated its strategic journey to promote innovation in 2008. Over the past years, more than 600 health professionals have been involved in innovation projects at the hospital. The success of this initiative is reflected in tangible results that include 180 innovation projects, 40 patents, 7 licenses, 3 start-ups and 1 spin-off.

What were the drivers of the hospital's innovation strategy? The authors outline 5 steps that allowed the hospital to successfully promote innovation.

Innovation in healthcare

1. The first step was the creation of a Department of Innovation and Research to attract talent and obtain financing for research and innovation. Bringing research and innovation together in a single department proved to be crucial in avoiding conflicts, which usually arise when these two areas are separate.

2. Appointing a well-known doctor as Director of Innovation and Research was another fundamental aspect of the hospital's innovation strategy. This role was assigned to the hospital's medical director, who was also on the board of directors. His expertise and connection to top management allowed him to bring innovation to the hospital's discussions about strategic priorities.

3. The hospital put together a team of experts devoted to innovation, initially on a part-time basis and later full-time. One of the team's training activities involved visiting other countries to learn from innovation experiences that had proven to be effective, for example at Boston Children's Hospital and the Mayo Clinic in the United States.

4. Targeting specific topics through innovation was another step that allowed the hospital to focus on specific priority areas such as medical devices, ehealth and digital health. Concentrating efforts in a small number of areas and selecting high-impact projects with high credibility became two essential aspects for driving innovation.

5. Efforts were also invested in creating a culture of innovation within the hospital. Once a week, the Director of Innovation and Research visited each of the 33 services and departments to discuss what innovation was and to explain the role of the new department. The hospital also involved doctors in the innovation process by putting them on teams to tackle specific projects.

Doctor checking heart rate

Key factors for innovation

What are the key factors and lessons learned from the hospital's successful strategy to promote innovation in healthcare organisations?

1. The team and its leader

The team of the Department of Innovation and Research included people of many ages (ranging from 25 to 63 years old) representing a wide range of disciplines, including medicine, pharmacy, economics, engineering, design and journalism. This multidisciplinary approach allowed the team to tackle projects from very different perspectives, which contributed to obtaining better results.

2. Innovation culture

For innovation to be effective, three cultural changes emerged as essential. The first was to involve both doctors and patients in innovation projects from the very beginning. The second was to break the traditional hierarchical barriers of research and allow anyone in the hospital to communicate potential ideas to the Research and Innovation Department.

The third was to gain the trust of doctors, especially when the Department rejected their ideas – not because they were bad but because they were not seen as business opportunities. Learning to say no without damaging relationships or burning bridges was essential to ensure that doctors would return the next time they had an idea.

3. Resources

Having resources to invest in skills, talent and knowledge was also at the core of the hospital's innovation success. Investing doesn't guarantee innovation, but having a budget is crucial for implementing prototypes and running the necessary patent eligibility tests.

Another key aspect was the value of human capital: having a highly devoted and committed team and the support of the hospital's top management ensured a sustained effort towards innovation.

4. Processes

For innovation to succeed, a lean process had to be put in place to allow the proper flow and management of new ideas. There proved to be a direct correlation between good innovation processes and results.

If the ultimate goal is to accelerate the cycle of innovation, the process must be very agile (doctors have very little time to dedicate to activities that are not strictly patient-related). It must also be efficient to ensure that resources are only invested in the projects with the most potential.

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