Speaker’s Plea: ‘Win the journey’ where people live their lives

The stage at the end of the large hall is bathed in cool purples and blues. The runway is flanked by two huge television screens.

An announcer asks people to take their seats as quiet background music gives way to a pounding beat. It’s 8 a.m. on day three of the conference, but the place feels like a dance party may break out.

The moderator Mayo Clinic Center for Innovation’s Transform 2016 conference, John Hockenberry, welcomes the crowd and introduces the morning’s panelists. Each will share experiences about why health care innovation matters and why now is the time to get started. The first speaker he introduces is Gwen Conner, director of the business accelerator for Providence Health & Services, based in Renton, Washington.

As Conner walks down the long runway, a picture of her and her husband with his mom comes on the television screens. “Good morning!” she says and launches into the story of her mother-in-law, who received a life-saving kidney transplant 10 years ago.

The kidney has served Conner’s mother-in-law well, but recently she started to tire easily. She learned her kidney was functioning at only about 20 percent. That bad news paled in comparison with her experience trying to find an answer. And experience Conner used to think about patients’ lives, not just individual medical experiences.

‘Win the journey’

The screens flanking Conner turn to a photo of her mother-in-law and Conner’s son sharing birthday cake. Conner tells the audience she took her mother-in-law to a kidney transplant center, worried about whether her mother-in-law could afford another transplant, if she could manage more medications, and how she would respond emotionally to another transplant.

Then at the end of a “very long day,” a doctor laid out a hard reality. The doctor told them that it would take more than five years to find a match, and because of her declining health, there was a very good chance she’d have a stroke or heart attack before, during or shortly after transplant. She wouldn’t receive another kidney.

“The opportunity for us in health care is to go beyond these point innovations to those points in between where people are living their lives.” — Gwen Conner

When the doctor left, Conner and her mother-in-law began to cry.

Her mother-in-law said, “I failed.” But Conner says she believes the medical community failed her. The medical community won the day by being able to provide the first transplant, but now we need to “win the journey.”

“The opportunity for us in health care is to go beyond these point innovations to those points in between where people are living their lives,” she says. “We need to look at improving their life experience, to give them tools to live their lives more fully.”

‘Psychophysiologically aroused’

Conner paces the stage as three words form on the screens behind her — Define, Invite, Go.

She says at Providence Health & Services, she and colleagues have identified these three key areas to foster innovation to enhance how people like her mother-in-law experience health care:

  • Define: What are we trying to do with innovation? What is it in service to?
  • Invite: How are you inviting the outside in?
  • Go: How do you just get started in one of the most complex and regulated industries in the world?

Conner tells the crowd that studies show half of all health care workers are not engaged in their work. Then the phrase “psychophysiologically aroused” comes on the screens.

“I want to work with other people who are psychophysiologically aroused and have people taking care for me who are psychophysiologically aroused,” she tells the crowd. Then, with the enthusiasm of a motivational speaker, asks, “How about you?”

She says this state of arousal is innate in everyone. Its goal is to make work more meaningful and purposeful. To turn it on at Providence, she developed a program that presented healthcare’s biggest problems, aligned with organizational priorities, and asked employees from across the institution to submit solutions. The submissions were posted online so employees could vote for the change they wanted to see.

The institution then spent $500,000 funding 26 elected solutions. It saw a 560 percent return on investment, as these solutions saved Providence $2.8 million.

But Conner tells the crowd the point wasn’t just the savings. Each proposal had to demonstrate how it would improve quality of care and enhance the health care experience.

She encouraged those at the conference to similar things to engaged caregivers. “Create a challenge,” she says from the stage. “Tie it to strategy. Put some guardrails around it. Share it across the whole organization, and go for it.”

Inspiration is the fuel

Conner has implemented several other approaches to innovation at Providence, such as a speaker series that invites leaders from other industries to share their approaches to the customer experience. She launched an innovation fellowship team that trains key players from teams across the institution in human-centered design and helps them understand key pain points for customers.

“In the first year, we brought new models, new approaches to nearly 1,500 Oregonians. We’ve partnered with over 15 community groups and technology companies,” she tell the audience, as her voice gets more excited, “And our fellows are psychophysiologically aroused!”

As Conner finishes and the crowd applauds, Hockenberry takes over. “Alright, you guys, on your feet,” he says with enthusiasm. “We’re gonna get psychophysiologically aroused. C’mon, let’s go.” The crowd stands and stretches. “There we go. That’s it,” Hockenberry says. He continues, to shouts from the crowd. “Oh, that was just outrageous!” he says. “I’m going to turn into an evangelist.”

After the presentation, Conner comes from behind a curtain to meet audience members. She fields questions about how she chose who would be on the fellowship team and how to find different technology companies to work with.

“You need to be around inspiring, passionate, intellectually curious people … It gives me fuel so I can go back and tackle the big problems.” — Gwen Conner

Conner loves this part of the Transform conference. She first attended in 2012 and says there’s nothing like it anywhere else in health care. She says everything she talked about on the stage was a direct result of Transform and the people she met at previous conferences.

“We started building the corporate challenges, the speaker series and the innovation fellowship program, all of that, off of the experience that I had here,” she says. “I love the Transform conference because it’s very different from a traditional health care conference.”

To take on the challenges in health care are, she says she wants to be focused on how overcome the challenges and how to move forward.

“How do we move forward and how do we get started?” she asks. “You need to be around inspiring, passionate, intellectually curious people who are comfortable with ambiguity and are entrepreneurial. I’m drawn to that kind of atmosphere, and this conference provides that. It gives me fuel so I can go back and tackle the big problems.”