As big changes come to radiology, leaders can’t forget about incremental innovation

Imaging leaders can create significant value by implementing incremental innovation at their radiology practices, according to a new study published by Radiology.

Authors Geoffrey D. Rubin, MD, department of radiology at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, and Richard G. Abramson, MD, department of radiology and radiological sciences at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, Tennessee, defined incremental innovation as, “making improvements or additions to an organization while maintaining the organization’s core product or service mode.”

In today’s era of artificial intelligence, machine learning and other technological breakthroughs, they explained, it’s easy to get distracted by thoughts of the future and forget to still focus on improving on a day-to-day basis.

“While we must all prepare ourselves for a future shaped by novel technologies in a rapidly evolving marketplace, radiologists must not allow themselves to be blinded by distant headlights at the expense of missed near-term opportunities,” Rubin and Abramson wrote. “Innovation is a tool for both great leaps and incremental steps.”

So how, exactly, can leaders be sure to push forward and implement incremental innovation? The authors list three key enablers of such progress: culture, structure and process.

Culture: Leaders should “nurture a culture of adaptation,” thinking ahead about problem areas that may be on the horizon and innovating as necessary to move past them. Leaders must also remember to consider the diverse perspectives of their team members.

“Radiologists, physician extenders, nurses, technologists, receptionists, schedulers, billing and coding personnel, and other support staff are all constituents within an interconnected ecosystem where individuals with differing skillsets, backgrounds, and perspectives contribute to advance the practice mission,” the authors wrote. “Practices need a spirit of active partnership characterized by a belief in mutually shared opportunities and obligations. Inclusiveness is important not only for maximizing the supply of worthy creative ideas, but also for building trust by making individuals feel valued and connected to the innovation process.”

Structure: Investing in innovation, developing “robust communication systems” and establishing incentives to explore innovation are just some of the ways leaders can work to build incremental innovation into their practice. An additional way to encourage innovation is to create “innovation teams.” The authors wrote about the advantages and disadvantages associated with such a strategy.

“On one hand, dedicated innovation teams offer relative autonomy to pursue creative ideas with freedom from bureaucratic constraints, symbolically elevate the importance of innovation, and may promote better outcomes by investing certain individuals with accountability,” they wrote. “On the other hand, creating dedicated innovation teams that are isolated and overly stable risks over-compartmentalization, limiting generalizability and cross-fertilization of ideas.”

Process: What does your practice do once it has a forward-thinking idea that could improve patient care? Rubin and Abramson noted that an “innovation funnel” can help leaders collect, test and filter ideas for innovation. Is the idea feasible? What might it cost? What are the risks? These are all things that must be discussed and evaluated.

“An overly bureaucratized process of formal review can stifle innovation,” the authors wrote, but a “systematically managed” process is still important for considering larger innovations.

“Ideas need not necessarily progress through the funnel at the same pace; transit speed may depend on the availability of the information needed to reject an idea or pass it through successive gates,” Rubin and Abramson wrote. “Although all opportunities are considered potentially viable as long as they remain in the funnel, the longer an idea resides in the funnel without progressing, the more likely it is to lose relevance and drop out of consideration.”

Of course, implementation is a step that can’t be forgotten. The authors noted that resources such as “funding, personnel, space and access to key decision-makers” must be identified and secured. Also, the innovation in question has to become a part of the existing workflow.

“During a time when the uncertainties of disruptive innovation are on many radiologists’ minds, it is particularly important not to ignore the incremental opportunities to strengthen our practices and improve their position within larger health care delivery systems to help weather whatever disruptions the future might bring,” Rubin and Abramson concluded.