Lab’s ‘Boots on the Ground’ Nurtures Innovation Culture at Avera Health

Jay MeyersJay Meyers is the Innovation Lab’s client engagement executive with Avera Health. He is based in Sioux Falls, S.D.

When people ask me what I do for a living, I tell them that I work for a unique healthcare incubator. I’m the Innovation Lab’s “boots on the ground” at Avera Health.

I’m here to help enhance and grow the culture of innovation through the system, which includes hospitals, clinics and other healthcare services across five states in the Upper Midwest. We’re not just looking for innovative ideas that we can nurture, develop and ultimately commercialize, but we’re engaging employees to cultivate a culture of innovation. By being embedded within the Avera system, I’m able to engage with providers and staff where they are, and together we can grow our collective creativity to improve healthcare for providers and patients. In more practical terms, I’m the front line in leading innovative efforts, guiding innovators through our process, and growing ideas at Avera.

When I stepped into this brand-new role almost four years ago, the Innovation Lab team and Avera’s internal communication team had already developed some great materials along with a call for ideas. I walked in the door, and Avera employees had already submitted about 30 or 40 ideas. I was also tasked with rolling out a plan to inform and engage the health system about this new opportunity, where I’m teaching innovators what makes a good idea, where to find good ideas, and how to make a good idea better.  By the end of the year, we had more than 200 ideas to research and evaluate. Since that time, we’ve brought a handful of products to market, and – even as the pandemic has changed our daily work and collaborations – we are in different stages of research and commercialization on a steady pipeline of other ideas.

Here are six key insights I’ve gathered from being on the front line and helping to spark innovation across our organization:

  • Everyone can be an innovator. We all have it within ourselves to come up with something new and different. Too many people are too quick to say they aren’t creative. Then, after they spend about 15 minutes with me, we can usually come up with a problem they’re facing. If you can clearly define your problem, you’re about 90% of the way toward your innovation. Why? Because it’s only 10% more to figure out a creative solution. You might only need an hour or two with our team to ideate over that problem and come up with a solution.
  • We’re looking for unique solutions that have market potential. This is probably the hardest thing for me to manage, because great ideas are constantly flowing into our office. Our mission is twofold: Encourage innovative thinking and pursue ideas that meet a widespread market need. When I first arrived, I was excited about the potential of every idea. I still am – but, as I got better with research and understanding the needs of the market – I look for what I call the innovation trio: feasibility, viability and desirability. Unfortunately, only a small percentage of ideas cross the commercialization threshold, but that doesn’t mean the ideas generated that aren’t moved forward don’t have value. They often identify a noticeable need, and some of the solutions we find in our research will benefit the innovator to help solve those identified problems. So there is a value add. That was a huge learning experience for me, and I work to educate our Avera community on continuing to submit ideas and identify problems that need solved.Until we have the idea in hand and research to determine commercialization, we don’t fully understand an idea’s potential. So it’s essential that we’re mindful of the challenges they’re coming up against and continue to think outside of the box in sharing potential solutions. A big part of our success is relationship building, as innovators know they can keep coming back to us with ideas and know we will listen and provide feedback.
  • Innovation comes in many shapes and forms. It can be a device, an information technology, know how, or a process, as the ideas we’ve brought to market demonstrate. Those include an educational module that centers around a leadership development program to help nurses prepare and advance into leadership roles within their healthcare system, a wound care playbook and a digital platform that delivers elimination diet resources for patients with gastrointestinal issues. One other success, launched through a joint venture with the Innovation Institute, is Invenio Genetics, which is a genetics company that offers a saliva test that predicts which medications might work best with your body based on how you metabolize them.  That groundbreaking solution can help providers prescribe the right medications without trial and error, which is often the case in behavioral health therapies. It can also help gauge how a patient will handle different pain management medications. The Lab was able to identify Avera’s genetics and genomics solution as one we could grow and scale nationally as a separate company. In the pipeline are several ideas in late-stage product development and another that is poised for commercialization later this year.
  • There are nontraditional pathways to commercialization. The Rising Nurse Leadership Development Program is an excellent example. Initially, the inventors of this homegrown educational program weren’t sure if this would be something our innovation team would be interested in, even with demonstrated outcomes through a formal study. Our intelligence teams also found research that showed a great need for nursing retention solutions. What made it so powerful was that we had solid performance data showing nurses who went through this calibrated program were more successful in moving into leadership roles with greater pay. That’s why we encourage our people to share every idea. Even ideas that might seem like a small change can have incremental impact on others’ lives.
  • Changing lives motivates innovation. The people I work with want to make life easier for care providers (or themselves, as they do their jobs) or improve healthcare for their patients. They want to find ideas that have good impacts and outcomes. I’m here to activate innovators and help them harness these opportunities they have right at their fingertips. I’m appreciative of the support across our medical center, as we often tap into our internal teams to run pilot studies.
  • There’s not a part of my job I don’t like. I get to work with everyone in the health system from the CEOs and surgeons to the nurses and environmental services teams to learn about their challenges and what they’ve created to overcome those challenges. I have a unique opportunity to have a comprehensive look under the hood, so to speak, of a health system. By now, I have a good pulse on where the challenges are both at Avera and in the healthcare industry, so I can help our team explore the opportunities and uncover solutions that could help here or benefit other hospitals. My work is done in tandem with the team at the Innovation Lab, which provides additional resources and product development. That includes one project in its third prototype stage, and we hope to have a decision this spring on whether to move into clinical trials.

Of course, COVID-19 operations changed how I engage with partners across Avera, as I would traditionally visit different hospitals and locations to talk about innovation and seek out ideas. But great ideas don’t stop for a pandemic. We’ve used this moment to focus on ideas already in the pipeline and find creative ways to keep raising awareness. Every Avera computer features one-stop access for submitting ideas, and we’re using internal communications to keep a spotlight on innovation. Even in a difficult time – and sometimes because we are in a difficult time – we still find opportunities to spark creative thinking.

The Innovation Lab is continually reaching out to partners to encourage out-of-the-box thinking and gather ideas to change the future of healthcare. Share your ideas with the Innovation Lab team.