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HIStalk Interviews Coby Skonord, CEO, Ideawake

September 13, 2021 Interviews No Comments

Coby Skonord is co-founder and CEO of Ideawake of Milwaukee, WI.

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Tell me about yourself and the company.

Ideawake helps large healthcare systems or providers create a highly engaging experience to capture, evaluate, and implement ideas from frontline employees. The biggest customers we work with in the healthcare space are UnityPoint, Advocate Aurora, and Sanford Health.

To what degree are health systems underusing their workforce as a source of ideas for innovation and improvement?

We are seeing a large uptick in getting better utilization of frontline staff, especially once they implement our system. A lot of the time when we come in, there’s a large underutilization, because things they tried in the past, like running one-off contests, didn’t work all that well. A lot of the time, systems are built on top of SharePoint or another solution that’s already internal. Since you don’t run these often inside of the system, things will fall through the cracks and you don’t get the results that you want. There’s no action plan after the fact. 

Once we come in, we see much better utilization. It’s easy to get started, but it takes a couple of cycles of running these challenges to get a lot more adoption across the large swaths of the organization. We normally like to start pretty small.

How much does using a technology platform democratize the process to avoid having the highest-ranking person choose their favorite idea?

One hundred percent. You hit on a great point. The best ideas to improve patient experience and process come from those who are closest to the patient every day. To your point, we democratize the process of capturing ideas. We do this in a couple of ways, but it empowers anyone at the front lines of the organization, regardless of role or title, to make their voice heard based upon the quality of their idea versus their job title.

What kinds of ideas are health systems looking for?

It’s all over the board. About half of our use cases, or challenges as we call them, are around continuous improvement. General process improvement within the system ties a lot to quality improvement programs. That’s pretty much exclusively how Sanford Health, as an example, uses the system.

You can also go to the other end of the spectrum, which would be product innovation or solutioning, which is split pretty evenly. How might we better attract millennials? How could we reduce patient anxiety before, during, and after care takes place? We’ve seen challenges that focus on solutions to better enable the aging in place trend that’s happening in the market.

The challenges focus on the major categories of healthcare trends that are being talked about from a consulting perspective. What trends will affect us? Then, putting those in the  form of a question and asking frontline staff for input on them.

Is this a way for health system executives to avoid paying consultants to simply talk to their employees and then report back a summary of what they said?

I like to say that we are more fun than consultants. The system is gamified. Users earn points as they submit ideas. There’s a leaderboard and you can offer prizes. Unlike having consultants interview employees, we create a transparent experience that allows for peer-based recognition. Employees can like each other’s ideas.They can track their idea from when it’s submitted to when it’s decided upon and ultimately implemented. You complete the loop of, hey, I gave input and something came out of it.

Health system executives sometimes solicit employee input on such decisions as choosing an IT system or how to implement it, but then override the frontline employee vote. How do health systems handle cases where a popular idea isn’t considered workable?

We do our own primary research. It’s important to complete the loop and to make sure that there’s transparency around where ideas go and why. We did a survey of 700 employees throughout the continental US, who told us that the number one reason that people who had ideas stopped sharing them – 20% of respondents – was because they didn’t hear feedback on where a previous idea they shared went and why it went there.

As far as prioritization, certain ideas that flow to the top from the frontline staff might not be workable for several reasons. But we have a transparent prioritization process where leadership who reviews the top ideas can say why something will or won’t work. That is communicated back to frontline staff automatically.

How do health systems decide who they want to participate and then encourage them to do so?

Our philosophy is the more, the merrier. We believe in the wisdom of crowds and the power of large numbers when you have the ability to sift through the ideas automatically using our technology. Our rule of thumb is if you’re under 5,000 participants when you get started, you can target that entire population. If we go over 5,000 or you have a complex network with a lot of locations that span several states, we’ll normally roll it out to a specific service line across several locations, or do it in a region and then expand out from that. But overall, we believe that everybody has ideas to improve quality of care and outcomes, so we try to make sure that everybody is involved.

Would the best prospect be a health system that has a track record of innovation, or should they just have a general interest or a specific idea to try?

Most health systems have some type of quality program in place. We see the easiest way to get started is making that quality improvement process more collaborative. Many health systems, regardless of their organizational makeup or culture, have that baked into the culture. We can help significantly improve the results. 

From there, looking at the innovative side of things. Innovation is happening in healthcare all over the place. If you don’t innovate, you will be left behind. Look at Blockbuster to Netflix, taxi cabs to Uber, or Amazon Care. Where primary care is getting disrupted now is on the fringe, but events and trends will continue. Health systems will have to be innovative and center their overall care model around the patient, continuously getting that patient input and feedback. If your culture doesn’t support it yet, then the best place to start is quality. But if you hear words around patient-centric care, and investment is going on around patient-centric care, we would be a great fit.

Are for-profit companies interested in paying health systems to participate in product evaluation or development?

We haven’t seen too much of that yet. In my past life, with the inception of the company, we were doing something similar that was entrepreneur focused versus enterprise focused. What we see most commonly now is an enterprise reaching out with an open call to startups for solutions, instead of just focusing internally on employee ideas.

Do health systems invite patients to be part of the process?

We are seeing the first iteration of that right now. It has been talked about for a long time. There’s a hesitancy to go directly to the patient or to replace some of the things that are in place currently, but it is something that we are starting to see. We should have our first rollout to those in early 2022. We just need to work through some obstacles such as security and compliance and making sure there are no concerns about HIPAA. When you go internal to employees, there’s a lot less concern. Sometimes there is more of a fear about working with patients, but we have the technology to do fully anonymized feedback.

What is the future of health system innovation?

Employee engagement and employee experience were already critical, but with COVID-related attrition rates, retention strategies are becoming even more important. Our system is being leaned upon more because of the need to engage employees and empowering them with a voice. That trend will grow. Most health systems think that their culture doesn’t support innovation, but every culture inside or outside of healthcare can support it. It’s a matter of where you start it. There will always be a leader in a region who will support the initiative. The sooner that leaders realize that, and more and more are realizing it now, the easier it will be to bring innovation and patient-centered care into the mainstream.



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