Published in Health Care
The winners of University of Michigan Health-West’s employee pitch competition proposed a new message system for patients to renew medications. The winners of University of Michigan Health-West’s employee pitch competition proposed a new message system for patients to renew medications. COURTESY PHOTO

Health system’s employee pitch competition yields new plan for prescription renewals

BY Sunday, March 13, 2022 06:13pm

new system to help patients more easily renew prescription medication by phone that also saves staff time and avoids delays at University of Michigan Health-West is the result of the health system’s recent employee pitch competition. 

Rather than requiring long messages with personal information on an automated phone system, the new system takes University of Michigan Health-West patients through a series of specific questions to answer. The idea came from the health system’s Caledonia Health Center and office team leader Cassie Baker and office manager Amy DeGood.

Once fully in place by midyear, the new message system should cut down on the need for staff at University of Michigan Health-West’s 22 clinics in the Grand Rapids area to follow up with clarifying calls to patients. 

The added benefit: Better use of staff time as health care — like all sectors — faces a tough staffing shortage.

“This is a real pain point,” said Dr. Rakesh Pai, University of Michigan Health-West’s chief population officer and president of the University of Michigan Health Partners physician group.

The new system being deployed comes from Burlington, Mass.-based Nuance Communications Inc., which provides speech recognition and artificial intelligence software and works with more than three-quarters of U.S. hospitals. University of Michigan Health-West is piloting the message system, Pai said.

Improving operations

The idea to alter the way patients call in prescription renewals was the first winner in the health system’s Innovation Challenge that looks to generate and implement ideas from staff to ease bottlenecks and improve operations and patient care.

The first round of the Innovation Challenge attracted 27 proposals from employees. The health system funded the winning proposal, known as “The Nuance of Refills,” with $66,000 to implement. 

The employee team behind another finalist in the pitch competition — from the company’s Community Health Center in Wyoming — got $9,000 to buy 10 remote monitoring kits for vulnerable patients to manage their hypertension.

The employee Innovation Challenge was initially intended as a one-time event. After drawing 27 entries from employees, health system executives decided to hold the pitch competition annually, Pai said. He has seen similar events work well at health systems on the West Coast where he previously worked.

“The basic idea is when you have teams of people that are so focused on their day-to-day work or day-to-day operations, they don’t have a lot of time to really think about solutions and finding innovative approaches to their problems,” Pai said. “I really wanted to empower the people who work in my side of the organization … to have the opportunity to really kind of solve the things that are impacting their work and come up with ideas to fix the problems that are their pain points.”

The pitch competition requires participants — whether doctors, nurses, medical assistants, administrative staff and others — to write and submit a short summary of the problem they’re trying to solve. A review committee selected the submissions “that seem promising” and invited the employee teams to submit more information about their idea that includes the budget they would need, Pai said.

The committee selected five finalists to pitch their idea to a panel of judges in January. Judges scored finalists based on University of Michigan Health Partners’ seven pillars: growth, attracting more patients, innovation, reducing waste and saving money, enhancing work flows, patient experience, improving quality and outcomes, and health equity.

University of Michigan Health-West this year put $75,000 toward the pitch competition, and Pai hopes to double the budget for next year.

“It was a big success by all accounts,” he said.

Other finalists in the pitch competition were ideas to:

  • develop videos that explain procedures to patients who follow along at their own pace on handheld tablets;
  • expand the use of a mobile unit to provide better access to care for patients with limited transportation ; and
  • form an apprenticeship program for administrative positions that could help young and emerging talent explore career options in health care.

In the winning proposal for improving prescription renewals by phone, judges heard some of the messages that patients left when calling, Pai said.

One patient said the message asked him to remember too much information and was “going to call someone else” before hanging up, Pai said.

In another instance, a patient who had been treated for a rash left a message that they had seen a female provider who “was on the second floor” and whose name they did not remember. Nor did they recall the name of the prescribed medication, and that somebody needed to call them back, he said.

“When you think about all of the people that are answering these messages, it’s a total game of telephone tag. They call you, you call them, they don’t answer, and it’s a lot of non-value-added work,” Pai said. “The team said, ‘Look, If we don’t have a solution for this, we’re wasting a couple of medical assistants’ time every day, basically,’ … and right now, we’re in a very powerful staffing crisis.” 

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