The Heart of Healthcare Innovation Keeps Beating

— Our annual innovation symposium inspired us to make our health system work better

A photo of people seated during a presentation at a symposium.
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    Fred Pelzman is an associate professor of medicine at Weill Cornell, and has been a practicing internist for nearly 30 years. He is medical director of Weill Cornell Internal Medicine Associates.

This past week we held our seventh annual Primary Care and Hospital Medicine Innovation symposium.

This homegrown program was designed to support everyone, including medical students, interns, residents, fellows, faculty members across multiple fields, medical researchers, and every other member of the healthcare team, to foster new projects and new ideas that folks have about how to improve the care of our patients and the lives of all of us who care for them.

Every year we offer seed grants to support budding research projects -- something related to primary care or hospital medicine -- helping to foster collaborations and new ways of thinking about the care we provide. We're open to virtually anything, and I've always been impressed by the range of ideas people have come up with -- new ways of reimagining our care processes, sometimes with the goal of helping overcome inequities, bringing in new technology to assist us, looking at something we do and saying, "We can do this better."

The pilot projects are designed to test out an idea, to provide a little support for logistics, data analysis, equipment and supplies -- protected time to see if this idea floats, if it's got teeth, if it's worth pursuing to the next level.

Many of the projects we've supported over the past 7 years have led to publications and presentations at academic meetings, and helped kick-start some clinicians to further their research careers, and opened up new avenues of research for our clinical researchers as well.

The few weeks before our symposium were full of work on logistics, getting all the moving parts together, and making sure that all of the arrangements were properly in place for a full morning's event scheduled at a site off campus, just about a 10-minute walk away from our hospital.

Over the course of those few weeks leading up to the symposium, I didn't get much sleep. Mostly this was because I kept waking up at 2:00 in the morning and imagining that no one would show up in person, that our keynote speaker would miss his flight, that none of the audiovisual stuff would work, or that the food would be terrible. I was catastrophizing in an endless cycle of insomnia and anxiety.

When the morning of the event actually arrived, I woke up at the crack of dawn, and made my way over to the event location, but -- as is normal for me -- I was there too early for them to even be ready to unlock the building.

As many of you have noticed since the pandemic, getting attendance for in-person events has been a challenge; folks are much happier to sit at home on the couch on Zoom, or skip events, including those that they've signed up for and really want to attend, when we all have so many other things to do. I was a nervous wreck at the beginning, when our administrative assistant, who had done such an amazing job of getting everything set up, turned to me and said, "What happens if nobody shows up?" This, of course, was exactly what I had been thinking. Anxiety spiral...

As those of us who'd arrived early bustled around, setting up the posters and making sure the swag was all at the front desk and the sign-in sheets were in place, a few attendees, including our keynote speaker (whew!), started to arrive. When the time came for introductory comments to start, the room was still pretty sparsely filled, which did not help alleviate my anxiety. Over the course of the morning we got a fairly good showing -- more than I'd feared and less than I'd hoped.

We hope events like this will inspire the enthusiasm we all feel in our hearts for improving things, and will lead to better engagement and collaboration across multiple fields of study and medical specialties. Surgeons want to work better with internists. Nurses want to work better with physicians. Pharmacists want to engage with our patients. Researchers want to study everything we're doing and help us build a better system.

In the end, our keynote speaker, Kedar Mate, MD, president of the Institute for Healthcare Improvement, gave a tremendous talk, and many people came up to me afterwards and told me how inspiring it was. And last year's nine exciting seed grant awardees gave brief talks on their work in progress and results to date, which further energized the room.

Now that we're done (sigh of relief), there are still some loose ends to tie up, administrative things we need to take care of, plans to make for awarding next year's seed grants, and follow up on what all the previous pilot projects have done.

Our hope is that everyone's enthusiasm can continue, that new opportunities for collaboration, change, research, practice improvement, and social justice can continue to happen through the year. We're also planning a midyear "Shark Tank"-like event, and hoping to have ongoing outreach to everyone at our institution to continue to further the lofty goals of this program.

Despite how much work we all have to do, despite the level of burnout and challenge and frustration we all feel, in our hearts the enthusiasm, the energy, and the hope is there, and it is our fervent wish that programs like this one can help nurture these feelings, and help everyone achieve what we want in our professional lives, and in the lives of our patients.

So let's keep innovating.