Hospitals & Facilities

In healthcare, innovating the patient experience doesn’t always involve tech

MD Anderson’s chief innovation officer said the role takes stubbornness, patience, and curiosity.
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MD Anderson

· 5 min read

The chief innovation officer (CIO) role isn’t quite like any other C-suite position at a hospital, and no two hospitals take the exact same approach.

Some hospitals task their CIOs with running an investment fund or developing technology to commercialize or solve internal problems.

“The role of innovation in healthcare is pretty diverse,” Dan Shoenthal, innovation team lead at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, told Healthcare Brew. “If you talk to one chief innovation officer, you’ve gotten the perspective of one, but even amongst ourselves, we kind of joke about how we all have a little bit of a different responsibility.”

At the nation’s largest cancer center, the CIO role is built around experiential design—and that doesn’t necessarily mean introducing new technology (though that’s certainly part of it).

“People think of innovation where we have to have all of these augmented reality experiences [and] sometimes it’s just about how we evolve human interaction to be what that individual is looking for, especially an individual with cancer,” he said. “You know, this is, for most people, one of the worst parts of their life. And so that human interaction is critical.”

Experiential design management

The specific projects Shoenthal oversees might not seem to be that out of the ordinary on the surface, he said.

For example, during the design process for a new hospital building, project managers wanted every element of the building to be different, from floor layout to overall aesthetics. They also wanted the human interaction to be different—a task that fell to the innovation team.

“We talked a lot about technology,” Shoenthal said. “What does that front door look like? Do we have kiosks? How do we make an experience like airlines or high-end hotels?”

In the end, the biggest experiential design change his team implemented didn’t involve technology at all.

“The biggest change that we made was actually very basic interaction between the staff that are sitting at that front desk and how they personally greet the individual who’s coming in. [They] act almost like a human navigator or wayfinding tool to […] do a personal handoff,” Shoenthal said.

In their new role as greeters, front desk workers wore “How can I help you today?” shirts and approached visitors at the entrance, he added.

“It feels small, right? There’s a lot of grocery stores that do that […] but when we had the first round of patient satisfaction surveys that came back, a lot of the patients replied with, like, ‘Wow, I thought I walked into the wrong building!’”

Evaluating impact

One of the overarching challenges facing Shoenthal’s team is weighing use cases and usefulness of technology as both the tech and the patients MD Anderson serves evolve.

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Healthcare Brew covers pharmaceutical developments, health startups, the latest tech, and how it impacts hospitals and providers to keep administrators and providers informed.

“As we cycle through the populations and how we need to engage them, we have to think about how that engagement model needs to evolve—how they consume information needs to evolve,” Shoenthal said. “Marrying that with the evolution of technology that’s coming, and the appropriate usage of that technology” is key, he added.

Evidenced by the hospital lobby greeters, meeting the needs of cancer patients doesn’t always require a technological fix. Sorting through the hype around a certain technology and determining which tools are best suited to improve the patient experience is another key part of Shoenthal’s role.

“There’s always, in innovation, been a little bit of the shiny object syndrome,” he said, pointing to the example of artificial intelligence as well as how or where to use large language models to serve patients.

“I think there’s a critical balance that we all need to make—and not forgetting the little things, like that human interaction is just as valuable a lot of times as the technological.”

Hiring for innovation

One key part of any executive role is hiring the right talent. So, how exactly do you build a team to successfully innovate around the patient experience at a cancer hospital?

Shoenthal, who reports to the hospital’s chief technology and digital officer, said he’s not looking for specific skill sets or career paths when he’s hiring, but rather for people who are naturally curious, are comfortable questioning the status quo, and are familiar with how challenging change can be, particularly in healthcare.

“We have to be very thoughtful about how we approach change, and how we approach the evolution of the way we care and the way we interact with patients,” he said. “There’s resistance in this job […] Are you comfortable with applying that gentle pressure that’s needed to work through change?”

Most of his reports have some type of experiential design experience, but generally they are split into “human-centered designers,” who are tasked with imagining the future patient experience, and then those tasked with translating that into reality, Shoenthal said. Their backgrounds include everything from technical expertise in service design to psychology, he added.

“Change is hard. It’s a kind of an interesting blend of curiosity and stubbornness required for the role,” he said. “And what I’ve learned throughout the years is where we hear ‘no,’ it’s always good to kind of keep the ‘no’ in your back pocket, because eventually that no will become a yes.”

Navigate the healthcare industry

Healthcare Brew covers pharmaceutical developments, health startups, the latest tech, and how it impacts hospitals and providers to keep administrators and providers informed.