How Sutter Health is enabling a human experience through innovation and tech partnerships

Health systems often have to decide whether to invest in building new products and services or to look outside to partner. At Sutter Health, the Design & Innovation team does both. Located in the epicenter of Silicon Valley, it partners with cutting-edge organizations to fast-track, test, and scale solutions that enhance its internal human-centered design & build capabilities.

When Sutter Health’s CEO Sarah Krevans and Board created the team in 2015, the goal was to build a radically new approach to innovation, in part by collaborating with startups—allowing the health system to learn quickly at low risk and improve the patient experience. Sutter Health is a not-for-profit serving more than 3M patients across Northern California, so this team’s work deeply impacts the communities it serves—both in clinical innovation, such as pilots with Docent Health and Babyscripts to improve the end-to-end maternity experience, and also non-clinical innovation, such as an internally-designed a program which creatively captures every new family’s Birth Story when they deliver at a Sutter facility.

Through the team’s portfolio of 30+ pilots, Sutter Health has reduced the time it takes to establish partnerships by 73%—all while working to ensure patient safety, privacy, and impact. We sat down with Katie Simpson, the team’s Director of Strategic Partnerships & Innovation, and Megan Moyer, the team’s Director of Design & Innovation, to learn more about how Sutter is working alongside entrepreneurs to get some of the best solutions into the hands of care teams and patients more quickly.

Note: This interview has been edited slightly for clarity.

How does Sutter think about and approach innovation—and how does that fit into the broader health system?

Our approach begins with human-centered design to uncover insights and opportunities within the patient and provider journeys, which we use as an anchor for how we prioritize our work. We may design new services and processes internally, or look outside the organization to find already-built technology or service solutions to meet those needs.

We believe in extending Sutter’s reach outside of how healthcare is traditionally delivered. This means finding a way into people’s everyday lives, helping people build a stronger emotional connection with their care to build engagement, and providing new forms of value in areas such as nutrition, wellness, and transportation. One example is our partnership with Lyft to provide rides to patients without the financial means to get transportation home.

The Design & Innovation Team’s portfolio of work has a focus in Primary Care (which we call “Everyday Health”) and Maternity, but also spans across many service lines. Sutter invites innovation throughout the entire system. For example, Sutter’s Digital Patient Experience team, led by Dr. Albert Chan, piloted and is in the process of scaling Augmedix, a Rock Health’s portfolio company, to improve the efficiency of physician documentation. Additionally, Sutter’s nursing leaders are doing design projects to enhance the experience of being a nurse at Sutter—and front line teams iterate each day to improve the care we provide.

What is the Innovation Accelerator? What does the team aim to accomplish?

We understand healthcare can be a hard place for startups: the sales cycle is long and complex, there is a lot of regulation, and health systems are (for great reasons!) risk-averse. We knew there had to be a better way to work with the digital health and technology community, and make sure impactful products quickly reach our patients and care teams—and so the Innovation Accelerator (IA) was born. It’s a transformative team of senior leaders from within Sutter Health’s Operations, Clinical, Legal, Contracting, Compliance, Privacy, Risk, HR, Research, Strategy, and beyond. We bring in unmet needs and opportunities—and together, the team looks at potential risks from all angles and advises on the best way to proceed. Instead of saying “no” to the unknown, the team says, “how might we?”

The IA created a “pilot checklist manifesto,” a streamlined process for establishing partnerships. This has helped us efficiently structure arrangements with external partners, know where to look for red flags, and know where to go within Sutter when we need specialized expertise. In exchange for speed, we start pilots as small as possible. There is always increased uncertainty when you introduce something new, so we try to contain that variability within a small population to understand the impact before we scale more widely. The Innovation Accelerator team has built a great deal of trust among key leaders in the organization and has given us tangible data on what will make a pilot or partnership more likely to succeed.

What advice would you give to entrepreneurs interested in partnering with Sutter?

First and foremost, we are a human-centered design team. As such, we gravitate toward companies who are able to tell us exactly who they are trying to reach, what unique insights they’ve gained, and how human-centered design has driven their product and service design. Seeing that you have a mission-driven team who truly wants to do good can help us to bring your project through the system—because we believe in it with you. Trust is also a huge component of who we decide to pilot with—you have to protect our patients’ well-being and privacy as much as we do. And if your team works really collaboratively with our teams, as opposed to just trying to pitch your product… now we’re getting somewhere.

On the tactical side, having a solid infrastructure is key—build a HIPAA-compliant system, be equipped to sign a business associate agreement (BAA), and be willing to obtain the levels of insurance that health systems require. If you have that all in place, it’s much quicker to get to contract.

Lastly, be empathetic to the care team you’re working with. Any pilot test we do has the potential to introduce delays and variability into their workflow—and they are already working immensely hard in their day-to-day patient care. It’s a huge challenge if you have a web interface or separate app beyond EPIC and are expecting the care team to log into another interface. As a general rule, the more insight you can obtain from care team members throughout your design process, the better. Know exactly what you are asking for from the ops team in terms of implementation timelines, roles, and needs. If teams show up without an implementation plan, we will lose the clinical team’s engagement very quickly, as they are incredibly busy and focused on patient care.

What has Sutter learned from working with entrepreneurs throughout the process?

In collaborating with entrepreneurs and people who work in early-stage healthcare companies, we have developed a strong appreciation and tremendous amount of respect. To best support entrepreneurs, we aim to be as transparent as possible about the process of working together, giving a clear roadmap of with the milestones and timeline to track to.

Our team deeply admires the insights entrepreneurs and their teams have in seeing an unmet need, the energy they expend building a solution, and the perseverance they have in blazing a path through the complex maze that is healthcare—all in order to radically improve the experience for all.

Sutter Health’s Design & Innovation team exists to do nothing less than fully transform healthcare by making it more human, engaging, affordable, and simple. Learn more about Sutter Design & Innovation’s efforts—and hear from Sutter Health’s Chief Health Information Officer, Dr. Sameer Badlani, at Rock Health Summit on October 16th in SF.

We’re honored to work alongside organizations like Sutter Health who are committed to making healthcare massively better. Learn more about becoming a Rock Health partner.