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.

Houston Methodist is researching the effect of virtual reality on cancer patients. Photo courtesy of Houston Methodist

Virtual reality goes far beyond playing games with titles like Arizona Sunshine, Moss, Robo Recall, and Tetris Effect. VR also is playing an ever-growing role in health care settings. The global market for VR in health care could reach $3.8 billion in 2020, according to one estimate.

VR is touching all corners of heath, including robotic surgeries, training, pain management, and behavior modification, according to InterbrandHealth, a health care branding agency. And these technologies are happening right here in Houston.

Researchers at Houston Methodist Cancer Center are exploring whether exposure to nature, through either a real garden or VR, can ease pain and distress in cancer patients who are undergoing chemotherapy. This approach might decrease the need for prescription painkillers.

Houston Methodist and Texas A&M University are leading this test. Renee Stubbins, a clinical dietitian at Houston Methodist Cancer Center, and Ashley Verzwyvelt, an infusion oncology nurse at the cancer center, proposed the research after several years of studying ways that nature can boost the healing process.

"Anything that affects our patients' comfort — including easing pain and anxiety, and possibly reducing the need for pain medications — is important to their recovery," Stubbins says in a release. "People have an innate connection to nature, and we hope the patients will respond positively."

Three dozen cancer patients receiving chemotherapy infusions every two weeks during at least six cycles will be randomly assigned to one of three rooms: a live-garden-view room; a window-less room, and a room where nature can be experienced through a VR headset.

Teaming up with Houston-based Skyline Art Services, local artist Gonzo247 produced a nature-inspired mural on a wall behind the live garden to create an immersive environment. The mural depicts a flowering garden, blue sky and sunset that enhance the live garden of Texas wildflowers in the foreground.

Researchers will measure pain, distress, blood pressure, heart rate, and saliva cortisol at the beginning and end of each infusion visit. Saliva cortisol, a hormone produced when the body is stressed, helps gauge a patient's condition.

"If this study proves that real or virtual elements of nature help the healing process, then it has potential to positively impact our patients," Verzwyvelt says. "Some of them are hesitant to take pain medication due to concerns of addiction and adverse side effects, so I'm excited to see the possibilities this kind of research could bring."

Houston Methodist Cancer Center says the VR experiment could have implications for treatment of an array of patients who are immobile or whose immune systems are compromised.

"We looked at multiple studies that showed exposure to nature can reduce stress levels and actually increase productivity and creativity," says Ann McNamara, associate professor in the Department of Visualization at Texas A&M. "We want to see if we can reproduce those effects in a natural environment in virtual reality."

The study is being financed by the Center for Health & Nature, a joint initiative of Houston Methodist, Texas A&M and Texan by Nature, a nonprofit conservation group founded by former first lady Laura Bush. The Center for Health & Nature, housed at Houston Methodist Hospital, debuted in 2018.

"There's a gap in research regarding what nature factors lead to increased health, what exposure to nature means, and how much exposure is needed," Bush said when the center was announced.