Enabling Innovation During a Crisis at MassGeneral Brigham

June 10, 2020

In this episode of One Quick Thing, Chris Coburn discusses innovating to improve healthcare during a pandemic and the role of digital innovation in healthcare. Coburn is the Chief Innovation Officer at Mass General Brigham, previously known as Partners HealthCare.  Mass General Brigham consists of Harvard University affiliates, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Massachusetts General Hospital, Massachusetts Eye and Ear, and McLean Hospital. Coburn was previously the executive director for innovation at the Cleveland Clinic. 

Three takeaways from the conversation follow. 

1. Innovation Should Include Everyone, Not Just the Innovation Team  

During his time working in two large healthcare systems, Coburn says he has at times seen groups lag when deploying new technology, or resist being part of innovation initiatives. “We have incredible numbers, however you measure it — by the number of inventions, the number of deals, the money back. But in the end, way less than half the potential participants in our innovation community [engage with the innovation process],” Coburn says. “Some of it is attitudinal, in the sense that physicians show up after having gone through the most rigorous education and certification process in society, but some people tell themselves, ‘I’m not an innovator, that’s someone else. It’s not me.'”

However, Coburn says that staff members across the organization are developing — and looking for — solutions to problems caused by COVID-19. The team also created a COVID Innovation Center to “coordinate, facilitate, and rapidly develop innovations” related to the disease, according to the initiative’s website. The attitude toward digital innovation is also shifting, he says, “Sometimes [we] say, ‘We’re an IT company that delivers healthcare.’ … There are powerful tools that exist today that are being developed that essentially can improve the…provision of care in virtually any category.” 

2. Virtual Events Can Provide an Even Greater Reach than In-Person Conferences

Every May, Mass General Brigham holds the World Medical Innovation Forum, a Boston-based conference for healthcare innovators. This year, event coordinators had to quickly rework the conference into a digital format. Usually, the conference attracts about 2,000 people. According to Coburn, this year’s free, virtual conference saw 12,000 registrants from across 104 countries and 3,500 organizations. 

“It was really a remarkable gathering and…certainly met our goal to impart actionable information to the attendees,” Coburn says. “We didn’t [charge]. We did have people who had paid previously, so we just rolled them over to [2021]. We anticipate, or at least we hope, we’ll be back together in person, but we are certainly planning if we need to be digital.”

3. Look to Deploy Ideas and Technologies You Already Have

According to Coburn, the response to the coronavirus has been a team effort that involves taking some ideas and intellectual property off the shelf, and expanding its reach to meet patient needs. Coburn points to telemedicine as a primary example. He says that prior to the pandemic, his organization conducted 1,000 to 2,000 telemedicine visits each month. As of six weeks ago, Mass General Brigham averaged between 240,000 to 250,000 telemedicine visits a month.

When it comes to advancements in healthcare, Coburn says, “There are therapies, diagnostics, and vaccines that have been developed or are being developed inside of our system. … There are the re-purposing of drugs that have been generally available [to treat COVID-19 patients].”


This episode of One Quick Thing is sponsored by InnovationCast. InnovationCast provides leading-edge innovation management software and innovation strategy consulting, enabling teams to go from ideas to success. They can help innovators drive growth by: Getting to stronger ideas, faster; testing the most promising ideas, without breaking the bank; and taking the best ideas to the finish line and creating impact.

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