Here’s What Makes Henry Ford Health System’s Employee Innovation Program Tick

Hospitals are increasingly launching efforts designed to leverage new technologies, be they working with healthcare accelerators, taking advantage of employee ideas or setting up onsite centers designed to support a culture of innovation. One institution which has gotten a little further down the road than many of its peers is Henry Ford Health System, whose innovations program has paid off handsomely, generating countless smart, useful inventions from its employees.

So serious is the health system about exploiting its employees’ great ideas that it’s made organized efforts to reward such thinking directly. For example, HFHS just completed the competition among employees to submit their best ideas in clinical applications for wearable technology. The institution not only encouraged employees to participate, but sweetened the pot by offering a total of $10,000 in prizes to winners of the contest.

Winning entries included:

*  A system designed to record and encourage mobility of acute care patients by using wearable activity trackers
*  A recovery tool for total hip replacement patients which monitors and limits range of motion to rehab by using wearable sensors
*  A health and wellness reminder system for elderly patients, leveraging location-based sensors and smart watches
*  A mobile game interface, powered by activity trackers, designed to encourage childhood exercise and fight obesity

Certainly, the employees must appreciate the cash prizes, but they told a Forbes reporter that they’d participate even if there were no prizes, because what they really enjoy is having the experience and access to the program. That’s a pretty telling indicator that simply appreciating their concepts goes a long way.

This contest comes as part of larger efforts to make the health system innovation friendly. “The most important word is yes,” said Nancy Schlichting, the system’s CEO in a Forbes interview. “It is difficult to create a culture of innovation. If you shut down one person to shut down everyone, because bad news travels fast. When it comes to innovation, my mantra is yes.”

Other efforts to encourage employee intrapreneurship include big rewards for success in product development. The HFHS intellectual property policy offers a 50% share of future revenues coming from product ideas that end up in the market. That’s a pretty impressive call to action for employees who might have a great idea in their hip pocket.

Yet a third way the health system encourages innovation is to bypass employees’ natural fear of failure by tapping into their desire to help people. By encouraging clinicians to focus on patient care improvements, for example, the system drew staff cardiologist Dr. Dee Dee Wang to create a breakthrough method for more accurately sizing artificial heart valves and planning trans-catheter surgeries using 3-D printed models from CT scans. (She worked with Dr. William O’Neill in this work.)

So if they can generate great innovations, why aren’t more health systems and hospitals launching programs like these?

I don’t think the direct cost of creating such a program is much of an obstacle, especially for a multi-hospital system. It may require hiring a senior exec to spearhead the effort, but that’s not a huge investment for entities that size.

My guess is that one reason they don’t move ahead is management bandwidth — that health leaders simply don’t feel they have the time, energy and focus to kick off such a program at the moment. But I also suspect that C-suite execs just haven’t given much thought to the untapped potential their employees have for creating incredible solutions to critical health care problems. Sadly, I suspect it’s more the latter than the former.

About the author

Anne Zieger

Anne Zieger

Anne Zieger is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she's served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.