A SPARC for Medical Innovation

Innovation labs are the latest rage among companies obsessed with staying ahead. High-tech giant Motorola (MOT) has one, as do such trend-sensitive outfits as toymaker Mattel (MAT) and consumer-goods producer Procter & Gamble (PG). But even organizations such as the Mayo Clinic are now finding the idea powerful.

"Everybody is aware that health care is in a shambles. It's a nonsystem," says Dr. Victor M. Montori, an endocrinologist at the famed Rochester, Minn., clinic and director of research and education at SPARC, Mayo's year-old innovation laboratory. "We want to generate a new set of ways to meet the needs of patients."

The physicians associated with SPARC have ambitious goals. They want to remake the way health care is delivered, recasting the timeworn ways that doctors and patients deal with one another. And, fittingly for research-minded physicians, they're using a rigorous, scientific method intended to generate peer-reviewed papers based on hard data that will influence the practice of medicine well beyond the Mayo Clinic. Indeed, they note that decades ago the clinic pioneered now-common innovations such as group practices, where doctors from different fields treat patients under a single roof, replacing solo practitioners.


  At SPARC -- which stands for See, Plan, Act, Refine, and Communicate -- the physicians are tinkering with traditional practices, such as seeing patients from behind intimidating desks. Instead, they're trying out spaces where patients and their families sit alongside doctors at arc-shaped desks, reviewing medical information on computer screens open to patient and physician alike.

The idea is to put doctor and patient on equal footing, so each is a participant in medical care. "It seems like a subtle change, but it's actually pretty radical. We're trying to change the interaction, so they're on the same level," says Dr. Alan K. Duncan, SPARC's medical director.

And forget those daunting exam rooms with paper-covered tables. Sure, they may be necessary for physical exams, but the Mayo Clinic experimenters would rather converse in cosier settings with comfortable chairs. They complain that the now-familiar exam room hasn't been updated for decades. "We have a lot more flexibility in moving things around," says Dr. Nicholas F. LaRusso, chairman of the department of medicine at the clinic. "A lot of the furniture is modular."


  Aided by in-house designers on their staff and consultants from furniture company Steelcase (SCS), the Mayo clinicians are testing out different room and seating arrangements, asking patients to weigh in on what works and what doesn't. They even videotape consenting patients to see how well they interact with physicians in alternative settings. Through close observation, they expect to develop objectively better techniques.

The experimenters believe that changing the way doctors and patients relate to one another will yield better results. Consider the problem of patient compliance with drug regimens: Patients are notoriously bad about taking chronic medications for ailments such as diabetes. The Mayo researchers figure they can improve compliance by providing printed information that spells out -- simply and in elementary terms -- the benefits of compliance and the risks of noncompliance. This differs from the usual practice, where doctors instruct patients and, commonly, the patients quickly forget much of what they've been told.

SPARC is already making a difference. In an effort to reduce lines and waiting time, the department started testing computerized check-in systems -- akin to touch-screen electronic ticket dispensers in airports -- that patients use to announce their arrival at the clinic. The self-serve systems have been so popular that they're being rolled out throughout Mayo's operations.


  Steelcase's design consultants are happy to oblige experimenters with novel furniture designs. Practicing what it preaches, Steelcase runs its own innovation lab at its Grand Rapids facilities. There, the outfit's designers are constantly rearranging the furniture -- experimenting with seating arrangements that promote teamwork by better pairing up workers, for instance.

Flexibility is an important ideal for innovation labs. The physical layouts -- with modular furniture, lots of open space, and few private offices -- mirror the labs' underlying philosophies. Innovation comes about, the consultants argue, when teams of clever people solve problems together, and it's slowed when bureaucracy gets in the way.

As these labs gain prominence, companies will find out whether consultants are selling valuable ideas along with the nifty furniture.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.