Hopkins Leverages Innovation Hub Model at Sibley Hospital

By Jennifer J. Salopek

Amid frosted glass walls and brightly colored furniture, the meeting attendees cautiously approach the tables stocked with Post-It notes, crayons, Play-Doh, and duct tape in neon colors. Although the purpose of these supplies might be obvious to people familiar with design thinking, their usefulness is less apparent to the folks gathered at Sibley Hospital in Washington, DC, in late July. This is the first meeting of the Design Team on Healthy Aging, which is being held at Sibley’s brand-new Innovation Hub. The attendees, Sibley employees and representatives of local community organizations, will participate in a rapid 90-day iteration process to develop a new product or service.

The Hub is both a concept and a construct—a place and an idea. It’s the brainchild of Sibley CEO Chip Davis, who implemented a similar model in Baltimore when serving as vice president for innovation and patient safety at Johns Hopkins. The Innovation Hub was part of his vision for Sibley and, he believes, one reason he got the job as CEO in 2012. He takes inspiration from “high-reliability organizations,” such as aviation companies and nuclear power plants, as he guides Sibley to construct its future.

“For the past decade, I have had the opportunity to look at health care through different lenses,” he says. “As we consider what care will look like in the next decade and beyond, we must make room for innovation. While lean engineering is great for optimizing current processes, there clearly are times when it’s better to blow things up and start again.”

The blowing up of things is the purview of Innovation Hub Executive Director Nick Dawson, a former hospital administrator and president-elect of the Society for Participatory Medicine. As director of community and physician engagement at Bon Secours Virginia Health System, Dawson worked on innovation projects including ACO exploration and social mobile health technologies. A regular speaker at Stanford Medicine X, he earned his design thinking chops by collaborating on projects with concept creators at IDEO.

“I had sort of given up on thinking that anyone would really take on this kind of culture change internally. I didn’t see innovation that was aligned with true change in culture delivery; conversations were mostly about payment reform,” he says.

Davis walks the talk when it comes to culture change and a commitment to innovation. Not only does the Innovation Hub have a staff and a pristine physical space, but members of the senior leadership team—including Davis—hold office hours in the Hub weekly. Frontline employees are encouraged to drop by with problems, suggestions, and solutions.

“Sibley has a very patient-centric culture. I wanted the folks on the front line not only to point out opportunities and potential solutions, but to own them,” Davis explains. “When the senior staff asked, What about our day jobs?, I explained that this is the work.”

Davis proudly reports that 680 ideas were generated by Sibley staff in the first three days of Hub operation. “We are building organizational competency around innovation,” says Dawson.

Dawson thinks that, as a community hospital, Sibley is uniquely positioned to innovate. “As part of Johns Hopkins Medicine and located at the top of Embassy Row, Sibley has political and geographic advantages that will enable it to become a national thought leader in care delivery,” he says.

Of the 5,400 hospitals in the United States, 5,000 are community hospitals. “Although community hospitals provide the vast majority of care, most of the innovation hubs are at academic medical centers,” says Joshua Sclar, MD, a preventive medicine doc and adviser to the project. “There’s a huge need for innovation in community hospitals. We’re not developing the next fancy endoscopic dissection tool for gastrointestinal surgery, but rather partnerships for providing care and innovating around the patient experience.”

At the July meeting, Dawson explained the high-level principles of design thinking to the attendees, who then brainstormed areas of focus for the healthy aging initiative as they considered how community resources might be better integrated with Sibley resources. There are three other design teams kicking off this fall; Dawson’s goal for each is “something to hand back off to the organization” within 90 days.

Rapid iteration was part of Davis’s vision from the beginning. “My experience at Hopkins in Baltimore was that powerful things happen when you pull diverse people in to solve problems. You don’t need a task force and 27 meetings. We can solve problems rapidly, if not in real time,” he says.

It’s a model Dawson thinks other community hospitals will emulate. “Community hospitals need to figure out what their role is. By making the Hub an avant-garde, open-source model for design thinking and innovation, soon everyone will be thinking and working this way,” he says.

Jennifer J. Salopek is founding editor of Wing of Zock. She can be reached at jsalopek@aamc.org, or follow her on Twitter @jsalopek.