Featured Innovator

Meet the Houston Methodist executive at the helm of the new innovation-focused initiative

Roberta Schwartz is leading the innovation initiative at Houston Methodist. Courtesy of Houston Methodist

In an effort to be at the forefront of technology in the health care industry, Houston Methodist recently premiered its Center for Innovation, a group of leaders charged with finding new technologies for the hospital system for patients, physicians, and staff.

Roberta Schwartz — executive vice president, chief innovation officer, and chief executive officer of Houston Methodist Hospital — is at the helm of the initiative. After 17 years at Houston Methodist, Schwartz says she's seen the evolution of tech and is taking note of where the industry is going.

"I think we're an industry that is transforming itself. We're either going to be disrupted or we're going to do the disruption ourselves," Schwartz says. "There's nobody who knows health care better than we do, so if we're going to transform the industry, I want that transformation to come from the inside."

The hospital is instituting new pilot programs for tech advancements across the organization. Schwartz talks about the program and what she's excited about.

InnovationMap: Tell me about Houston Methodist's new Center for Innovation. How did it come about?

Roberta Schwartz: Methodist has always been an innovative institution. As we really saw the onset of a lot of disruption particularly in digital technology, we had already upgraded our electronic medical records. What we saw was with the onslaught of technology in other fields, they were figuring out how to layer pieces on top of our electronic medical record system to make that information usable — more patient friendly and smarter. As we watched these technologies come in, we found that there were a number of us within the organization that were just talking about it all the time and watching how we could really revolutionize the way we worked by embracing these new technologies. So, it probably started about 18 months ago where we found a group of us talking all the time, emailing articles, and figuring out how to hitch up our budgets for new technologies. Our CEO, Marc Boom was so supportive of us. We started meeting every other week for an hour. We called our group the DIOP — the digital innovation obsessed people. That's how it began.

IM: How did DIOP become the Center for Innovation?

RS: We spoke with our CFO and CEO. They said go ahead and provided us with some budget dollars for some pilots. We have now embraced a series of pilots in different areas of need. DIOP became formalized early this year and the Center for Innovation was born. We're now looking at a vision statement of how we can transform almost every aspect of our patient, physician, and administrative experience to make everyone's lives easier and better.

IM: What new innovative efforts are you most excited about introducing to the hospital?

RS: On the patient engagement front, we partner with a platform that breaks up bite-sized content that allows you in text form through — videos or two-way communication — so that we can engage with you before you even make a phone call to our office. For instance, after a visit we can ask you, "how bad is your pain on a scale of 1 to 10," and if you respond "10" we're going to call you before you call the office and have to press one, two, or three on our call board.

A second area we're excited about is a way to text back and forth with your doctor's office. We're changing to a much more modern communication style.

We're also changing how we recruit. We have a chatbot that's available 24/7. We find that we are communicating with night nurses at 1 am asking about benefits. A lot of the people we are trying to recruit are working at night when we don't have HR staff in the office all night long.

We are also looking robotic process automation and trying to take some of the menial work away from our staff so we can get them closer to the bedside or on more tasks.

Methodist went mobile. Our app is online — you can do virtual care, urgent care, or second opinion. Soon, we'll have virtual behavioral health and nutrition. You can also request an appointment.

IM: How is the technology changing the footprint of the hospital?

RS: We want to make Houston Methodist services available all over the country and the world, where it's appropriate. We're going to serve primarily Houston, but if we want to help those institutions in a more rural area, send them to us when appropriate, but for those who can stay at home and in bed, we want to keep them where they are and still provide them with the same level of care.

IM: With the 100-year anniversary of Houston Methodist, what do you hope to put in place for the next 100 years?

RS: We're an organization built on the pillars of success, and we constantly evolve. I can't even tell you where we'll be in a hundred years. I can tell you is that in a few years every type of ease of interaction that you have with Alexa and Amazon, that you have that type of interaction with your hospital.

I'm thrilled to be on this journey, and we're loving it.

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Portions of this interview have been edited.

Tom Luby will run the Texas Medical Center's Innovation Institute. Courtesy of TMC

Tom Luby is in his first week as TMC Innovation Institute director, but it's safe to say he's hit the ground running. The former head of JLABS @ TMC is ready to continue the growth of the institute as well as open up new doors to funding and the rest of the world.

"My hope is that I can be helpful to all the parties here to continue to recruit and grow great startups here," Luby says. "Critically important, too, is additional funding and bringing that here. And all of us are working together toward the successful launch of TMC3."

Luby spoke with InnovationMap about what all he has on his plate and how he plans on making Houston known for its life sciences.

InnovationMap: After working for Johnson & Johnson in Boston, when did you relocate Houston?

Tom Luby: In 2017, when the opportunity came up that I can join the team in Houston and grow our JLABS at TMC, I jumped at the chance, moved my family down to Houston, and have loved it ever since. I've loved the life science startup community here — it's small, but growing quickly — and what it has to offer to our family in terms of the diversity, the friendliness of people, the ease of getting to know people, and, obviously, the weather. When you come from the northeast, the Houston weather is nice.

IM: Boston has this major life science innovation reputation. How do we get Houston to have that same reputation?

TL: It's not very fair to compare Boston and Houston. The Boston life science community is around 40 years in the making. There's been a focus on that for a very long time, and as a result of all the startup activity through the '80s, '90s and into the 2000s, Boston has seen an influx of almost all the major pharmaceutical and biotech companies. All of them have footprints there because they want to be close to the startups. So, that mix of startup activity being embedded with lots of corporates has created a bit of a yin and yang situation — corporates are looking to pull the products from the startups into their pipelines and the startups have pulled talent from the corporates.

Houston's in a different place than that. If you roll the Boston tape back lets say 20 years where Boston was focused on generating a place where life science startups could have a chance to develop and be successful, that's where Houston is. We've gotten to a point where we're starting to see a really good density. Over the past four years, over 250 companies have touched down here at some point. That type of density is needed then to do that second part and recruit some of the larger health care corporations.

IM: Coming from J&J, what expertise do you feel like you are bringing to the table?

TL: What I hope to be helpful with is providing an overall strategic vision around TMC Innovation that allows us to scale from what's already been done here. Like I just mentioned, there have been 250 companies that have been here at some point in the past four years. That doesn't happen without the great efforts of those that came before me — the TMCx team in particular, but the JLABS team, the Biodesign team down the hall have created a really interesting and rapidly growing place for health care startups.

IM: What are some of your goals for the TMC Innovation Institute?

TL: In the short term, what we're going to focus on making sure that when people show up to the TMC Innovation Institute, they have a great experience, whether they are engaged with TMCx, biodesign, JLABS, etc. So, it's important for us to be well coordinated, working cooperatively together, and everyone focused on being service first when it comes to the startups here. What we hope to create is an environment where startups come and have an experience that leaves them knowing that that experience gives them the best chance at being successful. In addition, as we begin to engage with partners who can provide venture capital and angel funds, it's the same thing, that they come here and have an efficient, coordinated experience.

So short term, it's pulling it all together so that when you think of TMC Innovation, you know what it is, how it's organized and what our mission is. We'll also be making additional efforts to engage with the member institutions in TMC, and that they understand that we're a resource to them.

IM: The current TMCx cohort is the most international to date. Between that and the new focus on TMC's biobridges, why is a global presence so important to TMC Innovation?

TL: Biobridges are about making sure that important geographies outside the US understand that the TMC is a place where their startups can come and be successful.

It's important for TMC to use the bridge to gain insight and access into specific areas that we feel that those countries have core strengths in. Australia and its clinical trials networks is a great example of that. Our companies having access to tap into that is incredibly important. We know that those bio bridges will benefit our startups and give the startups there a chance to have access to us.

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Portions of this interview have been edited.