Innovation in action: How leaders are using technology to change health care as we know it

3D-printed prosthetics. Virtual doctors’ visits for the most critically ill. Human-centered design at one of the nation’s leading hospital systems.

This is what digital transformation in the health care industry looks like right now. It isn’t rampant — health care on the whole is struggling to keep up when it comes to the embrace of technology — but it is happening. And those who attended the latest installment in the TechTalks series, hosted by RMCSoft and Advent Coworking and sponsored by YourDevChef and Red Can Media, got a firsthand look, courtesy of four industry leaders.

“At the TechTalks events, we address various topics that we feel many small businesses in the community could benefit from learning about – from security issues to creating perfect prototypes and everything in between. The idea for this particular event came naturally – medical systems is one of our major areas of expertise. We see a lot of exciting things happening in the medical area – the Transformation is certainly here, and it is a wave you can either ride or get hit by. We feel fortunate we could assemble an all-star panel of those at the forefront of this movement – our speakers were sharing some great first-hand information on trends and happenings in their areas of medical technologies, which many of our attendees found very useful,” – commented Olga Muller, Director of Business Development at RMCSoft.

Matthew Hanis, founder and executive producer of Business of Health, kicked off the conversation by reminding those in attendance that health care hasn’t always been reluctant to embrace technology.

“Digital transformation of health care has been going on for 120 years. The first form of telemedicine was the transmission of an EKG in 1906 across a telegraph wire,” Hanis explained. “We’re at an unusual time right now because digital transformation gives us the ability to radically change pretty much everything about how we deliver health care.”

Case in point: Lisa Tweardy, principal of Kemo Sabe and vice president, Americas, for UNYQ, a company right here in Charlotte that is reimagining medical wearables with technology.

New advances in technology have made it possible for UNYQ to trade a laborious, time-consuming, inefficient process — the construction of prosthetics — for a faster, less expensive and more accurate one, Tweardy explained. At the same time, it’s able to give customers what they want more than anything else these days: personalization — a prosthetic device that reflects their individual style.

“UNYQ builds beautiful, sustainable and functional products using 3D printing and a variety of technologies to disrupt the traditional supply chain and logistics,” Tweardy explained. “In the process, we are taking the needs of many individuals and mass customizing our products, combining that with our design ethos.”

While UNYQ provides an example of a startup capitalizing on the potential of innovation, larger organizations are embracing digital transformation, as well.

At Atrium Health, Michael Johnson serves as director of innovation, but the title he prefers is “Sherpa.”

“That’s what we call ourselves in innovation,” Johnson explained. “A lot of folks want to do things differently, but they don’t know how. We’ll help you get there.”

At Atrium, the push for innovation focuses first and foremost on human-centered design.

“We want to bring empathy into what we do. How do you design for empathy?” Johnson said. “It’s not limited to human-to-human interaction. How do we build that into a system of what we do?”

Johnson also looks to the Business Model Canvas, a tool for understanding the components of a successful business, as part of his work in innovation. Health care is indeed a business, and it must evolve and innovate as much in that respect as it does in the methods for deploying health care services.

“That’s something we really believe in,” Johnson said. “A lot of cost and choice and power is shifting to the consumer, and we don’t have a model that’s designed specifically for that.”

Another critical aspect of how Johnson approaches innovation is through collaboration and partnerships.

“We’re recognizing now that we can’t do everything on our own. So we’re looking at what we’re really excellent at — providing care and servicing patients — and then at finding partners to capitalize on what they’re really good at,” Johnson said. “Let’s look at folks who have an innovative product and how we can tie into them.”

Partnerships like the ones Johnson describes are critical to the business founded by Waseem Ghannam, a former hospitalist and now principal and co-founder of TeleHealth Solution.

Ghannam created the company to address the epidemic of uncoordinated care in the post-acute care world. To do that, TeleHealth Solution has built technology that can be used in Skilled Nursing Facilities, Assisted Living Facilities and Continuing Care Retirement Communities to virtually evaluate and treat patients who are acutely ill.

The idea came to Ghannam after experiencing the flawed system firsthand. His work in nursing home settings alerted him to alarming standards of care that meant patients often went unseen by their physicians until their condition had reached emergency status. He knew there had to be another way — one that would keep patients healthier and costs down.

So he created a toll-free number that nursing homes can call for any and all matters, any time. He also built a system that brings the doctor to the patients, via two-way video.

“The technology we’ve built allows us to see the patient in real time. The only thing you can’t do is physically touch the patient,” Ghannam explained. “And our average hourly rate comes out to $7 an hour.”

The potential is limitless. So why doesn’t the health care industry go all in on technology?

According to leaders who have been there, done that:  It’s complicated.

“If you can demonstrate that your solutions can deliver value or solve an unmet need — and do that effectively — with the proper data, you can be very successful [at getting traditional health care players to embrace technology],” Tweardy said. “Otherwise, it is very, very hard.”

It’s also a matter of reliability, Johnson said. Take, for example, the pager — a device long abandoned among the general population but still widely used by medical professionals.

“A worse product can do a better job. That pager is solid and it’s reliable and you will get to them even if they’re in a concrete bunker,” Johnson said. “It could be a great piece of technology, but if doesn’t stick and connect, then it won’t go anywhere.”

In short, the standards are high in health care. But the opportunities are tremendous.