Mass General Brigham is diversifying its innovation process. Here’s how.

Boosting innovation is a goal for most U.S. health systems. But, in many cases, the innovation process lacks diverse participation. One provider is attempting to change that with an initiative that seeks to identify and break down barriers for underrepresented groups.

Late last month, Mass General Brigham, a Boston-based 14-hospital system, revealed details of its Innovator Community Expansion Initiative. The health system includes Massachusetts General Hospital and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, which are both teaching affiliates of Harvard Medical School.

Launched in October 2019, the initiative will focus on increasing participation among underrepresented groups at Mass General Brigham, starting with women and early career clinicians and scientists.

“The why [behind the initiative] is really because generating more ideas for new drugs, software, devices and therapeutics and increasing the diversity of those providing the ideas [and] participating in the innovation process will ultimately help impact patient care,” said Diana Schwartzstein, managing director of administration and co-lead of the initiative, in a phone interview.

The initiative is taking a data-driven approach to drive diverse participation in innovation. Using a newly developed dashboard, leaders of the initiative were able to see huge disparities in who in the organization brings their ideas to the table.

To further understand the barriers facing the underrepresented groups, Schwartzstein and her team collaborated with Katherine Coffman, an assistant professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, to develop a survey.

With over 635 responses, the survey showed that a lack of general know-how — such as how do you get started? What is does the path to commercialization look like? — and a lack of time and resources were the main hurdles, Schwartzstein said. These obstacles were shared among the different demographic groups.

“We know there is an enormous opportunity because there are 6,000 Harvard-affiliated faculty [members] throughout our system,” Schwartzstein said. “So, we [have a] huge population of potential innovators, [but] we know that the number that is actually participating and then commercializing is a much, much smaller number.”

To help underrepresented groups overcome barriers, the Innovator Community Expansion Initiative is focused on three areas: networking within the healthcare landscape, including with venture funds, start-ups and technology company leadership; education and awareness of the commercialization process; and data to measure improvements.

The initiative is creating an online education program, with 22 introductory-level courses on the basics of innovation, ranging from patents and conflicts of interest to the fundamentals of licensing and research agreements. It will open soon to all investigators at Mass General Brigham.

The Innovator Community Expansion Initiative also conducted a virtual development and networking session in March that featured women leaders across the health system and investors who discussed ways to expand women’s visibility in medical innovation. They are planning an in-person networking session in the fall if Covid allows for it.

To measure their success, the initiative will focus on the number of invention disclosures being filed by Mass General Brigham team members and the demographics of those doing the filing.

As the initiative’s efforts ramp up, leaders will track participation numbers and design new programs based on their findings, Schwartzstein said.

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