Contrary to popular belief, innovation isn’t a buzzword — at least, not if an organization is doing it right, according to Hank Capps, MD, Chief Digital and Information Officer at Wellstar Health System.
Capps sees it as “part of the culture that’s going to drive the consumer experiences of the future,” he said during a recent interview. “When you lean into that environment where new ideas are percolating and being brought forward, you have an amazing opportunity to create leapfrog moments” through the enhancement of care quality and safety.” The key, he noted, is in the ability to formalize ideas and present a view of innovation that creates bandwidth and focus around solving problems.
During the interview, Dr. Capps talked about how his team is working to achieve this goal, all while dealing with the lingering effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, and how they’re addressing the digital divide in healthcare. He also shared lessons learned during his time at Novant Health as well as his clinical experience; why the ability to “be nimble and shift” is more important than ever; and what it’s like to lead during such an “exciting and humbling time” for the industry.
LISTEN HERE USING THE PLAYER BELOW OR SUBSCRIBE THROUGH YOUR FAVORITE PODCASTING SERVICE.
- To help bridge the educational divide when it comes to digital tools, Wellstar is working with the Center for Health Equity on a number of interventions to “help train and teach people.”
- During Covid, healthcare organizations realized two things: first, that “we were going to have to innovate faster than we ever had before,” and second, that they needed to establish a culture of innovation.
- What appealed to Dr. Capps most about Wellstar was its vision to “continue to evolve and lead in the future, rather than react to it.”
- The idea of co-creating and co-developing has largely been foreign to health systems, but it has become increasingly appealing for those that wish to “function like a technology company.”
Q&A with Dr. Hank Capps, Part 2 [Click here to view Part 1]
Gamble: Let’s talk about the digital divide, which has always been a challenge, but seems more pronounced now. What do you think can be done to lessen that?
Capps: The digital divide is something that has always been hidden in plain sight. We’ve always recognized that, by various factors, you have uneven usage adoption access to digital tools. When you assume that’s the case, you respond by creating mechanisms that engage people across all walks of life, on all access levels. In doing so, you’re solving problems in that you’re going to be able to deliver it to people who maybe wouldn’t even conceive that they need it.
We’ve done a ton of work related to this through our Center for Health Equity, including a number of interventions to help train and teach people how to use the tools in cases where it’s more of an education divide versus a resources divide. I really think it’s a multipronged approach to allowing these tools to be in the hands of every single person we can help get it to.
“A holistic view”
It’s also recognizing that as you get more people using digital tools, you also open up non-digital channels with more access. And so, ironically, even when you get higher adoption in people who do have access to technology, you’re creating spaces for those who don’t have access to get the care that they need as well.
So, really, it’s a holistic view across all of it. To get access for people who don’t have access. To teach people who aren’t comfortable with it or who need to learn more, and to make sure that, regardless of any of that, the care is there and available to patients, when and where they need it.
It’s a journey. I don’t think anyone has fully figured that out, but I think that we will continue to have it as a focus area. And even within our innovation work, we’ve identified this as a high focus area, because we think that’s a generational solve, not a short-term solve. And having a short and long view as we’re delivering in this new environment is going to be one of the keys to success.
Gamble: You mentioned innovation. How does the organization work to foster that? I imagine it was affected by Covid — did you have to change your approach?
Capps: Innovation is certainly an ‘always-on.’ People think of innovation as a natural coupling with technology, and Wellstar has been an incredible innovator for years. With everything from being an early adopter of artificial intelligence tools, to some of the robotics that we’ve rolled out in our facilities, to some of the digital tools we’ve made available, we’ve long been a leader in adopting those types of services and bringing them to our patients. That being said, in the context of Covid and the global pandemic, we had a moment where we realized we were going to have to innovate faster than we ever had before. And so I think it’s not about innovation itself, but the speed at which you were going, and the artificial constraints you placed around that innovation.
Innovation isn’t chaotic; innovation is methodical, which people sometimes lose sight of in the excitement of it. And so we have really stepped up during the last year in trying to surface problems that needed to be solved and then solving them. And solving them cross-functionally across multiple areas of the organization.
Innovation “as part of the culture”
Now, we see a need going forward to formalize and bring together a view of innovation that creates both bandwidth and focus around solving problems and seeding the whole organization with innovation as a mindset and culture. Whereas we are very much focused around specific problems and answering those through innovation, we really see it as part of the culture that’s going to drive the consumer experiences of the future. Therefore, that access to ideas earlier in the idea-to-product cycle, where traditionally health systems would have sat on the more mature product side of the equation, is going to begin shifting.
We certainly are going to play a more active role in the problems that the industry is trying to solve and stay engaged in our local, national and global environments around new technology that’s coming. We’re really excited about what that will mean and how it will translate for our patients and consumers, because when you lean into that environment where the new ideas are percolating and you bring them forward, you have an amazing opportunity to create these leapfrog moments of bringing capabilities, enhanced quality, enhanced safety and experiences, to our patients. We fully believe there are many innovations on the horizon that are going to be able to make that impact.
Gamble: I imagine that’s part of the appeal that Wellstar had when you came to the organization.
Capps: Wellstar is an amazing organization. The vision our CEO has for the future and how we’re going to continue to evolve and lead into that future, rather than react to it, is exciting. I had an incredible 18-year career at Novant Health; an organization I love very much that similarly is postured and built around the patient and facing the future. But the opportunity here at Wellstar to develop that type of ecosystem at the scale that it represents and the market in which it exists, with aspiration for growth, is incredibly exciting. We have a great team here and a great foundation to build some of these innovations. I’ve been honored and humbled to have had the opportunity to join this team.
Gamble: Eighteen years is a significant chunk of time. When you think about how far the industry has come during that period, I would think it’s been really interesting to see that happen.
Capps: Absolutely. I had an amazing experience at Novant Health. I started as a full-time practicing clinician and from there, inadvertently ended up in charge of the Epic ambulatory rollout. We rolled that out in a couple of years; I then became the chief operating officer of the medical group, and later, the physician network. I was charged with building out a team to build out the backend infrastructure to run an integrated medical group in the context of an integrated health system — everything from value-based care to nursing to Epic optimization to operational advancement, etc. We built the structures to support clinicians in the delivery of care and the day-to-day operations of a large medical group. During that time, we grew from 350 sites to more than 600. It was a period of rapid growth; I learned a ton during that time.
Learning experience at Novant
There was a lot of emphasis on innovation and digital, even when I was in that COO role. I was very fortunate to have been asked to build out the digital health capabilities for Novant Health and identify our approach to consumer innovation as we became more deeply involved in the venture and private equity side of the world. I looked at how health systems interacted in that space and evaluated companies as a part of that role. We stood up a couple new companies that were wholly owned by Novant Health and built around delivering the next generation of care.
Interestingly, the intersection of all those experiences — EHR rollouts, innovation, and digital health — formed this crazy convergence as to where Wellstar was headed and the goals that were set. It was an incredible experience. I had some great mentors and learned a lot. And I’m very excited to now be at Wellstar now with a team that’s ready to accelerate into the future while continuing to build out all of the necessary infrastructure and foundational capabilities to manage the technology estate of an organization this size.
Gamble: You mentioned working with startups while you were with Novant. Is that something you’re doing at Wellstar?
Capps: Absolutely. Our intent is to be much more engaged in the entrepreneurial space; to get engaged with ideas earlier, get engaged with companies that are earlier in their progression, and then translating those ideas into the health system environment, and ultimately, to our consumers and our team members. And so we’re focused on starting to design structures that will allow us to be more nimble in that way, and to start harvesting ideas in the organization and bring them to life, while also harvesting ideas externally — everything from our neighbors in the physical location, to the region, the national, and even what’s happening globally.
We see big marketplaces of healthcare technology happening in Europe and in Israel, and so we’re positioning ourselves to be able to harvest those ideas and partner across industries and across different idea development cycles. We’re excited about digging in to that work and accelerating it. Wellstar isn’t new to that; we’ve been very active in some of those innovations and early ideas, whether it be through research or through some of our initiatives. But we see that as a much bigger component of the technology approach — and, for that matter, the system approach—in surfacing those kinds of new ideas. It’s not just technology.
Gamble: It makes sense to do that co-development angle, where you have the best and brightest from the technical side and the clinical side, rather than just going with a fully baked product.
Capps: Absolutely. The dynamic of co-creating and co-developing has been foreign to health systems for the most part. But if you’re thinking about functioning like a technology company, you have to have those functions, and you need to look for strategic partners. You want to harvest those ideas in your own organization and work to bring them to life. Although our core objective will always be taking care of patients, at the same time, we have that ‘always-on’ dynamic with innovation that helps surface more and better mechanisms for taking care of patients. It flows back to the mission ultimately, but this is a mechanism by which we’ll accelerate exposure of these care modalities to the organization and the communities.
Gamble: Being a physician, I can imagine it has been really gratifying to see what has happened in the past year or so in terms of telehealth adoption.
Capps: It’s an interesting perspective when you have that intersection of the clinical mission and technology, and bring it to life for patients. When I scale back to my personal mission, it intersects with the work we do every day in providing these tools or services at scale to large volumes of patients who wouldn’t have had that access otherwise. The past 18 months, with the acceleration of digital health and all the different mechanisms of care, has heighted that ability to scale care to when and where patients want it. But the reality is that the digital to brick-and-mortar connection is going to always be there, and so one of the tricks in the future is going to be how we create a relationship between the physician and patient that remains strong regardless of the care mechanism.
Healthcare’s “exciting” future
As an organization, we have a mission and vision, and physicians have a mission that has led them to the work they’re doing. The convergence of the technology, the system of care designed around the patient, and ultimately, the digital connection points between all of that, is going to create a lot of differentiation in the marketplace. And so if you have the mission, if you have the technology, if you have clinicians who share that same vision, and you have varied care venues, all of those things are going to be interacting in this new ecosystem. The perspective of the clinician and the relationship and feelings that clinicians have toward patients will come out at every step of the way. When you’re delivering world-class healthcare to every person, every time, it’s not just in the physical settings, but in every interaction and touchpoint. That gets me excited, because now we’re extending that same mission where we’re enhancing health and well-being all the way out to before a patient needs care. The impact generationally over the next 100 years, if we figure all of this out together, is that people will be healthier and our communities will be healthier. That original mission of a physician connects back to me to the difference we’re going to be able to make going forward.
Gamble: Well said. It is really exciting to think about that, and to acknowledge that this really is an exciting and pivotal time in healthcare.
Capps: I think it’s an exciting time and a humbling time as we face the worse health crisis (hopefully) of our lifetime, with the innovation that can come from it and the teamwork we’ve seen across the whole industry, whether it be someone in the technology organization or someone on the frontline caring for patients in the midst of all of what we’ve been through.
The future is exciting. The present has been challenging, and what will get us there is doing it together and working as a team.