The Hat Trick: Physician + Informatics + Innovation

I am a practicing physician with extra responsibility for informatics and innovation. I love being able to do multiple things in my day, but I do often hear “How do you juggle all those roles?”  The simple answer is that I truly treat them as synergistic—they feed and support each other. My first love is being a primary care physician and taking care of my patients. Yet I also am constantly thinking about how I might do my job easier and better.

Sometimes there is an informatics answer, such as creating new content, alerts or reports within our EMR. Other times there are more innovative answers, such as creating a new process which helps delegate work across my team. But increasingly, there is a combined answer, such as creating a new workflow within our EMR or finding an innovative IT tool and figuring out how it fits into our system’s infrastructure.

Physician informaticists also ask me is how they can be more innovative. The good news is that most informatics doctors are perfectly set up to expand into the innovation space. They already have an appropriate skill set, such as an interest in new technologies and workflows, excellent problem-solving talents, an ability to work with a wide range of personnel, and an innate desire to constantly improve the current system. The trick is whether they have the time and resources to make these changes happen, so here are some thoughts to help you blaze this trail at your organization.

First, start small and let things evolve. In fact, a well-known innovation mantra is “Fail Fast, Fail Cheap, and Fail Often.” In other words, you should embrace piloting and the concept of an “n of 1,” often where you can and should be your own guinea pig and ground zero for your innovations. This means signing up for the many new apps, websites and technologies you see out there, healthcare related or not. Try them all for a little to see what they feel like and think about how they might apply to healthcare. Maybe come back to them at another time if you don’t see the value at first. Be the first to try new EMR functions to determine how well they might work in your system’s current workflow, or if they warrant a new workflow.

You will fail. A lot. That is okay, because each mistake is a golden piece of information which will help lead you to a better place. By starting small, you don’t need a lot of time, resources or permission to try something new.

Second, always make time to observe. Just watching your colleagues and staff in their day to day lives will help you quickly see bottlenecks and gaps. For example, I was approached by our hospital nursing executives recently as they were trying to be innovative with the discharge process. We formed two teams of three people each and went to the floors to observe and talk to the frontline staff—the nurses and other caregivers on the floor. We used a classic innovation method called “Love/Wish,” where we ask folks what they love about a process and what they wish would change to make it better. An hour later our two groups met and found we had a robust list of opportunities that involved improvements and innovations to both workflow and IT utilization.  

Being a physician informaticist gives you a unique platform upon which to innovate, so keep your eyes and mind open and help make a better system for all of us.