Executive Voices: Omkar Kulkarni, MPH, Chief Innovation Officer of CHLA

Samara Rosenfeld
JUNE 07, 2019
Children’s Hospital Los Angeles (CHLA) is working to implement healthcare innovations that improve efficiencies and enhance the patient experience. Omkar Kulkarni, MPH
 
Although the innovation program at the hospital was only established a little more than a year ago, Omkar Kulkarni, MPH, CHLA’s first chief innovation officer, has identified the priorities he says will achieve that mission. Along with using technology to reach the hospital’s goals, Kulkarni is building strategic partnerships with other companies and startups that share similar priorities.
 
Kulkarni, a graduate of George Washington University, has a master’s degree in public health and care management from Columbia University. Before joining CHLA, he was the executive director of the Cedars-Sinai Accelerator, where he helped launch the program. He evaluated thousands of healthcare startups in the role.
 
I spoke with Kulkarni about the establishment of CHLA’s innovation program, how he’s leveraging technology and what he looks for in a successful partner or startup.

Editor’s Note: This interview has been slightly edited for length, clarity and style.
 
Samara Rosenfeld: What steps are you taking to build successful innovation program at CHLA?

Omkar Kulkarni: At the highest level, the first thing I’m doing is understanding the goals and priorities of CHLA. That is the foundational element toward making sure that the innovation program supports the mission, values and strategic goals of the organization for the next one, three and maybe even five years.
 
The next step is identifying and prioritizing the different elements of the strategic goals. Where are the elements in which an innovation program can be most effective and impactful in helping achieve those goals in a faster manner?
 
Beyond that, I’m identifying people across the organization — leaders in administration, clinical care, research — who are doing really innovative work already. I’m identifying what the activities are of their innovative work and how a team like mine can be supportive in enabling them further.
 
S.R.: What challenges have you faced in building the innovation program and how have you overcome them?

O.K.: One of the biggest is prioritization. There are so many good ideas and opportunities to improve the way in which we deliver care and improve the patient and family experience that the number of ideas just outpaces the amount of work and time that we can spend meaningfully trying to make those changes.
 
One of the most important elements of my job is really making sure that we’re prioritizing the different ideas that are raised. We need to take ideas that are not at the highest end of priority and figure out how to continue to support the entrepreneurs and innovators who are behind them, so that someday they can be refined, iterated and at a place where we’re ready to implement them because they are polished and aligned with the needs of the organization.
 
So prioritization is a really key element.
 
The other is balancing with everything else the organization is doing. CHLA is much like every other healthcare organization in the country in the sense that it has many priorities and objectives that it wants to achieve, innovation being one of them. And understanding the importance of balance and making sure the work that’s part of the innovation agenda supports and doesn’t detract from any of the other important work going on at the organization.
 
Both prioritization and balance are key elements that are part of a successful program, but if not dealt with, they can be challenges that can slow somebody down.
 
S.R.: What are you working on now?

O.K.: Our program at CHLA is divided into four key focus areas. The first is on care model innovation. We believe we have an opportunity and obligation to support the national discussion on how we provide high-quality care and experiences for pediatric patients and their families at a cost that provides the most value to the overall health system. We are partnering with organizations to develop or co-develop innovative care models that can help the enterprise at CHLA deliver high-quality care and provide the best set of experiences while maintaining value. We’re doing that by exploring ways in which we can leverage technology like telemedicine. We’re exploring how we can leverage sensors and monitoring devices that can help care for remote patients. We’re looking at leveraging chatbots and artificial intelligence to further enable the care provided by our providers and our staff members.
 
The second bucket involves technology advancement. We support entrepreneurs and developers who are building technology in pediatrics to support pediatric medicine. We also believe that the pediatric space within health-tech innovation is underserved. If you look at the number of dollars and resources put into digital health, it’s a lot of money nationally, but a disproportionate amount is being put into pediatric care. It is an opportunity for us to influence that problem in a really big way.
 
Within our innovation studio, we have a digital health lab focused on external and internal partnerships to solve problems by leveraging software. So we recently did a hackathon focused on immersive experiences using virtual and augmented reality, which we are calling Gamifying Pediatrics. The focus is on identifying ways to leverage these technologies to solve problems in pediatric care.
 
Another element is through supporting entrepreneurs building medical devices. We have a program funded by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration called Consortium for Technology and Innovation in Pediatrics. It enables us to support entrepreneurs who are developing medical devices for pediatric patients.
 
Our next focus area is around supporting the ideas that our providers, staff and researchers have. We call that Idea Incubation. The core element is a program that we are calling the Better, Faster, Cheaper Challenge. Anybody at CHLA can say their idea that will make care better, faster or cheaper. Top ideas will be prioritized, and innovators will be supported to develop prototypes and piloting ideas. If they are successful, we will implement them into the hospital.
 
The final focus is around culture. We believe it’s important within CHLA and the broader regional and national ecosystem for us to share the work we are doing, build a culture around the importance of pediatric innovation and how people from within the hospital and the community can work together to solve problems that we can’t by ourselves.
 
S.R.: How does your program differ from others?

O.K.: I think innovation programs are built based on the priorities of each organization. CHLA is focused on making sure all pediatric patients in Los Angeles have access to high-quality care. All of our efforts are focused around ensuring patients can access the care at CHLA. Other programs around the country are built around the focus of the organization.
 
To give you an example, our program takes an approach of looking at internal and external innovation. We are looking to partner with developers in our digital health lab, startup companies with promising solutions to potentially do pilots with them. We’re looking at working with large vendors externally to support some of our care model innovation work. And we’re also looking at internal sources. In terms of our Better, Faster, Cheaper Challenge, how can we generate ideas from within? It’s a unique model that really leverages and embraces internal and external sources of innovation, which puts us in a really unique space among other innovation programs around the country.
 
S.R.: How have you used innovation to improve outcomes and the patient experience?

O.K.: Even though the innovation studio has been open for just over a year, we’ve been able to get a lot of work done and support a lot of innovators. Our focus around enabling patients to access their providers using telemedicine is something we have grown and absolutely enhances experiences for patients and families. We also found ways to leverage virtual reality and further work that has already been done by researchers and innovators at CHLA. My team has supported that growth. We’ve also launched efforts to identify ways we can use data to better support processes within the hospital that are improving efficiency. By doing that, patients are happier because, ultimately, we can better take care of them in a more efficient way — they’re waiting less and being seen in a faster manner.
 
What we’re doing is laying the groundwork and making it easier for innovators at CHLA to get their ideas vetted, developed and piloted. Even in the year we’ve been in business, we’ve been able to do that for many innovators. In doing so, their work is very positively impacting patients that are being seen here.
 
S.R.: How do you choose the partners that best support mission and help carry out goals?

O.K.: Partnership in any sense is all about identifying common elements, incentives and motivators for each side and finding ways to bring them together. That’s our approach. We have our priorities identified. Now we are trying to find organizations that have priorities on their side that would align well with our priorities.
 
For example, we are working with a commercial health insurance company that has an interest in providing high-quality care for lower cost and good value. We have a similar goal. It’s a great natural collaboration to partner with an organization like that.
 
There’s a technology company that’s looking for ways to leverage some of its cutting-edge technology related to speech recognition. And we have an innovator at CHLA who is really interested in speech therapy using voice-based technology. So there’s another natural fit there.
 
S.R.: What about startups? How do you keep track of and weed through all of the new companies looking to move into the space?

O.K.: I’m a big fan of startups. I think they play an important role in the ecosystem. Entrepreneurs who are developing startups are making bold choices to build businesses and companies that are, in some instances, challenging the status quo within healthcare. That’s an important thing to recognize for all of us working within innovation in healthcare. Finding ways to work with startups and reduce friction is important for all of us as a health system in order to innovate more efficiently.
 
How to keep up with them? Well, I think a lot of it involves relationships. There’s a large network of stakeholders who are very plugged into the startups that are coming out and looking for funding. That network includes innovation programs and leaders, the media, providers, the pharmaceutical industry, payers and university and academia, where a lot of these startups are born.
 
My approach is to know the people who know where the startups are. It involves making sure we’re all plugged into this virtual and national network that, through our own pieces and components, are aware of who the startups and entrepreneurs are who have been successful in the past. Understanding where the startups are early on the journey is really important, and we can do that through our network. It’s a collaborative network. We’re happy to share information among our peers around promising startups and entrepreneurs who are doing really important work.

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