For UCHealth chief innovation officer, the future is now

Richard Zane, MD, aims to help UCHealth improve patient care by sparking new ideas and solutions
July 6, 2016

On a Friday afternoon last week, Richard Zane smiled when asked about the goals he’s set in his new position as chief innovation officer for UCHealth, announced by President and CEO Liz Concordia June 28.

He’d been in the position only two days, he reminded a visitor. But he’s also the guy who led the overhaul of emergency care delivery at University of Colorado Hospital shortly after being named chair of the Department of Emergency Medicine at the University of Colorado School of Medicine in 2012. He’s gone on to play important roles in extending the ED process improvement initiative at other UCHealth hospitals; developing UCHealth’s DocLine for referring physicians; and expanding patient access through freestanding emergency departments through a partnership with Adeptus Health Inc.

Richard Zane, MD, is UCHealth’s first chief innovation officer.

So it didn’t take long for Zane to begin talking about what he plans to do in his new job – he retains his positions as department chair at CU as well as executive director of emergency services for UCHealth – and how he will help fulfill the three main goals Concordia outlined in her announcement. These include overseeing and managing system-wide process improvement; implementing “novel technologies” across the system; and building partnerships with other innovators, both internal and external, to develop new technologies.

Leading the digital charge

Broadly speaking, Zane said, UCHealth aspires to be “a care delivery system everyone wants to emulate. We want to be mentioned in the same breath as other innovative institutions.” He cited Partners Healthcare in Boston, the Cleveland Clinic, Mayo and Stanford as prominent examples. The goal, he added, “is not innovation for innovation’s sake,” but rather to find ways to “redefine how health care is delivered to meet the needs of patients and make providers more efficient in delivering safe, high-quality care.”

Zane said he wants to focus right away on further developing digital health services that improve patient access and assist providers in the community. He cited as examples e-urgent care; e-ICUs to assist community providers with remote consultations; health “kiosks,” or “micro-encounter spaces,” equipped with video screens and devices to measure and send patients’ health information to providers; and online, patient-directed scheduling of appointments.

These and other telehealth services dovetail with UCHealth’s rapid expansion along the Front Range, with new hospitals built or in the works in Broomfield, Longmont, Colorado Springs, Highlands Ranch and Greeley, Zane said. The idea is to make care more accessible for patients in their own communities through a variety of convenient avenues.

“We’re growing fast and building hospitals as part of the decentralization of health care,” Zane said. “We want to deliver community care, enabled by technology. It’s not just more efficient; it’s more mobile. With telehealth, we can provide patients with a near-virtual interaction with a subspecialist.”

Mining the data

Tapping further into the power of the Epic electronic health record (EHR) is another priority for Zane. He believes that providers in the coming years will be able use data from the EHR to make better and more sophisticated clinical decisions about patient care. One example: using “natural language processing,” a technology which can be used to extract clinical information electronically from providers’ unstructured free text in the EHR. The winnowed data could then be assimilated into dashboards with relevant, evidence-based information about, say, a patient’s chest pain for a provider to review.

Solutions of this type are necessary, in Zane’s view, because the amount of information generated in health care today threatens to overwhelm providers – unless they have a way to tame it. “Medicine has evolved to become a myriad of inputs, and it’s not reasonable to assume that human beings can handle it alone,” Zane said.

He also foresees the development of remote tracking devices in the form of wristbands worn by patients. While the idea might conjure images of ankle bracelets to track the comings and goings of felons, these devices would instead electronically consume physiologic and biometric input from patients and transmit it to their providers to analyze. The technology would be a boon for providers managing patients with chronic conditions like heart failure, enabling them to look for clinical “harbingers of early illness,” like sodium levels or fluid retention, even before symptoms appear, Zane said.

Such innovations will become more and more frequent in the years to come, Zane believes. “Health care is now one-sixth of the economy, and investment in digital health has grown exponentially,” he said. “The landscape is ripe for disruption.”

Helpful detours

Positive disruptions are already occurring every day throughout the UCHealth system, Zane pointed out. For example, technology from California-based company LeanTaaS, implemented in 2015, helped to slash wait times for infusion patients in the University of Colorado Cancer Center by analyzing staffing, volume and other variables. Work is now underway to use the technology to free up OR block time with improved efficiencies and scheduling. UCHealth is a pilot customer and partner with LeanTaas in the effort.

The innovative efforts have no defined end point, Zane said, but he expects in the near term to lay out a “road map” that demonstrates “an understanding of the available infrastructure and the opportunities we have to improve health care delivery.” That will mean putting two or three solutions in place in the next year to improve the patient experience, he said.

The road forward will doubtlessly lead to new ideas to be explored in partnership with biotech start-ups and multinational corporations, Zane said. But however sophisticated they may be, ultimately, the goals for UCHealth are straightforward and part of its core mission.

“We want to find ways to optimize care and our ability to deliver it to patients who have a greater ability to access us,” he said.

About the author

Tyler Smith has been a health care writer, with a focus on hospitals, since 1996. He served as a writer and editor for the Marketing and Communications team at University of Colorado Hospital and UCHealth from 2007 to 2017. More recently, he has reported for and contributed stories to the University of Colorado School of Medicine, the Colorado School of Public Health and the Colorado Bioscience Association.