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Rich Roth is VP of Strategic Innovation at Dignity Health.

[Editor’s note: VentureBeat selected Dignity Health to speak at our HealthBeat event last month because of their unique model; we asked them to follow up on their talk with this look at how an ‘open source’ model can speed up innovation in health care.]

The advancements in medicine over the last 50 years are remarkable. Diseases once thought of as terminal are now curable. Chronic conditions today can be treated far more effectively than just a decade ago, making a huge impact on a patient’s quality of life.

Our nation’s health care system, however, has not kept pace with modern medicine. The system is fragmented, expensive, and often confusing. But I believe a renaissance is on the horizon. And as with any true renaissance, it’s all about our willingness to share information and test new theories.


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Innovation often comes from unlikely places, but for it to occur at all you have to be open to them. And when that openness is matched with a focus on data and simplicity, amazing things happen.

That was the case when we helped the California Public Employees’ Retirement System lower their premiums by $37 million over two years by partnering with Blue Shield of California and Hill Physicians Medical Group, which handled CalPERS members’ primary care needs. We co-created a health information exchange that allowed us to share distinct patient data securely between the three organizations, letting us better follow a patient from their primary care provider, to the hospital, and then back home.

By sharing our data and doing away with the old culture of animosity between hospitals, insurers, and doctors, we saved money and improved patient outcomes.

Open your doors

Most know the difference between open source and closed source computing. Where I work, we’ve chosen an open source model to address the need for innovation.

Specifically, we open our doors to novel early-stage companies to test their solutions in our system. Entrepreneurs and inventors all need a secure testing ground for their ideas, and we’re always on the lookout for ways to improve care and reduce costs.

Making this open approach work sometimes means — in the case of early stage trials — that we need to get patient consent prior to starting testing. But in other cases, such as a partnership we launched with mobile healthcare enabler AirStrip, patient information is already protected under the scope of our legal agreements.

We worked with AirStrip Technologies on an app that transmits information from fetal and adult heart rate monitors directly to doctors’ smartphones and tablets. Our doctors use the system to keep track of their patients’ conditions when it is not possible or necessary to be at the bedside. The app gives doctors near real-time data, dramatically increases their ability to make quick decisions and it frees them up to spend more quality time with patients in need.

Follow the data

We know AirStrip works because we have seen the data.

It shows we save time, money, and most importantly, lives. Innovation must be backed by hard data like this. If we can’t get the data, or data doesn’t prove the technology is effective, the trial ends. If the data shows improvement in quality, access to care, patient experience, and reducing cost, we work to scale it as a standard of care across our system. We did this with Airstrip for all obstetrics cases (nearly 15,000 deliveries) across our hospitals in California, Arizona, and Nevada.

Data collection is also a big part of our partnership with another startup, Asthmapolis. They provide our asthma patients with GPS-enabled inhalers. As with AirStrip, real-time data — in this case, where and when an inhaler is used — goes directly to physicians’ and patients’ mobile devices. The data is then used to help manage the disease.

Keep it simple

The best medical solutions are so simple they don’t require the patients to do anything.

With Asthmapolis, all a patient has to do is use the inhaler as they always would. Likewise, nothing changes for the patient in the use of the AirStrip technology, and the doctors are using their off-the-shelf smart phones exactly the way they were designed.

In addition to Asthmapolis and AirStrip, we are currently in various stages of discussion with 12 startups.

Our goal is to trial roughly five each year. Some of these are mobile technologies, others are service delivery startups (like NaviHealth), and still others are technologies outside of health care that may apply to us, such as our emerging partnership with near-field sensing technology startup, Kovio.

We are genuinely interested in helping young companies grow and be successful. And we make sure that every trial is conducted under controlled conditions where the patient is never in jeopardy, regardless of how the product performs. If our trial is fruitful, we can help the company expand and improve care all over the country. Our interest is in partnerships that, like the examples I gave here, deliver on the elusive triple play of health care: improved cost, quality, and access.

In the new world of health care, that’s what it’s all about. Actually, that’s what it’s always been about.

Rich Roth is VP of Strategic Innovation at Dignity Health, the largest not-for-profit hospital system in California, and the fifth-largest health system in the nation.

photo credit: Sailing “Footprints: Real to Reel” (Ronn ashore) via photopin cc

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