Healthy thinking Featured

6:28am EDT August 31, 2004
Thomas Zenty III recognizes that the strength of running a health care organization is that you are leading a team of highly educated individuals who are natural problem-solvers.

"Because we have such a strong research orientation, our people are always working on ways to find solutions to problems that are otherwise unsolvable," says Zenty, president and CEO of University Hospitals Health System. "We have a lot of highly intelligent and well-trained scientists, and as a result, innovation happens on a frequent basis."

UHHS is well-known for its clinical breakthroughs in any number of areas, but the organization has to be savvy enough to translate a scientific discovery in the lab into practical application at the bedside.

This problem-solving mentality may come naturally to many at UHHS, but without the proper encouragement and environment, innovation would be stunted.

"What I'm interested in is being certain that everyone has the opportunity to share ideas and concepts, and to create an environment where innovation and creativity are encouraged," says Zenty. "As is often the case, you will find some people that are always willing to seek new ideas, while others need to be encouraged to find new ones. The key is to create an environment where people will bring ideas forward."

To foster that sort of environment, you have to start at the top with a CEO who is committed to it. Senior managers have to be encouraged and rewarded for bringing ideas forward, as do those under them.

"Managers at all levels have to be encouraged to speak their minds," says Zenty. "You have to create a corporate culture where innovation and problem-solving are allowed to prosper. Across the spectrum of the system, we are always looking for ways to do things better."

One thing Zenty did was to simply ask every employee for suggestions.

"We asked every employee to come up with cost-saving ideas we could implement," says Zenty. "We tried it on a pilot basis with some modest success. It got people thinking about ways to do things differently and foster the development of a culture where they could come forward. It is about creating an overall climate of innovation and having the opportunity to create a more formalized program.

"The idea in working in a learning organization is to have the opportunity to share ideas."

UHHS innovations are not limited to clinical research. Zenty points out collaborative relationships with Case Western Reserve University and The Cleveland Clinic in BioEnterprise Corp., a business incubator, and other ventures as partnerships in which everyone benefits.

"We are working with The Cleveland Clinic in the area of cancer research," says Zenty. "We are seeing dramatic advances because of innovation and collaboration. On the business side, we have instituted cost-saving inventory control and supply chain management initiatives that have allowed us to reinvest in other innovative activities."

One of the toughest areas to manage innovation is the realm of information technology.

"In the arena of IT, there have been tremendous accomplishments and developments," says Zenty. "The application of information technology in the health care industry is still in its nascent stage. There are so many legacy systems that are not interconnected. It's challenging for us to find a common platform to use for all future IT applications."

The rapid advancement in technology means entire generations of technology can be skipped, and leaders are emerging in the tech field.

"The landscape is littered with companies that have great ideas but no cash flow," says Zenty. "When implementing IT solutions, you have to look at sustainability."

Leading innovation in the health care industry is especially satisfying because the end result is that people have better lives as a result.

"That's the reason why many choose health care as a profession," says Zenty. "Hopefully, we are making someone's life better for them and making breakthroughs that will have an impact around the world. It does make it a very interesting environment to work in.

"My No. 1 priority or role is to try to make certain that we maintain a climate of open and honest discussions, where everyone has a willingness to share and challenge ideas and continue to improve on what we do."

HOW TO REACH: University Hospital Health System, (216) 844-1000 or