Founder & Director, Kaiser Permanente's Innovation Center
Rethinking Health Care From the Ground Up
Jennifer R. Liebermann, MBA/MPH 01, literally created the job of her dreams: Mapping out the future of health care for one of the nation's biggest and most innovative providers.
Liebermann is the founder and director of Kaiser Permanente's Garfield Innovation Center. Based in San Leandro, CA, the 37,000 square-foot facility looks like a mash-up of between a testing laboratory, a movie set, and a Montessori school for adults. It includes a mock operating room, a medical/surgical unit, and even what looks like an ordinary home.
The center tests new technology, from electronic records to robots that make rounds on a hospital unit. But it also tests innovative social and organizational strategies to improve health outcomes. That can mean a new approach to handling overweight patients safely and with dignity, or new ways to keep people healthier in the first place. It might mean exploring wearable sensors that monitor a person's vital signs at home and enable patients to take diagnostic tests over smartphones. Or it might mean investing in school health-promotion programs to improve health across an entire community.
"This is a place where people come together to envision the future," Liebermann explains. "We give people the opportunity to greenhouse ideas. We run ideas through their paces, and give them a chance. Sometimes they don't work, but successful failures are an important part of innovation."
It was an idea that Liebermann initially sketched out in the evenings and on weekends, after handling her regular job responsibilities. She then set out to build support from many corners of Kaiser, and eventually raised the money to get it up and running.
"I was heavily influenced by the entrepreneurship classes that Jerry Engel taught at Haas – when you see a need, you build something," she says today. She also found inspiration in an experimental engineering class, taught by Sara Beckman, in which students built actual circuits as prototypes. That hands-on experience made her realize the learning power that comes with making things tangible.
Having grown up in the Castro district of San Francisco, where she had seen the ravages caused by HIV, Liebermann arrived at Berkeley Haas with a passion for strategies to improve public health.
Shortly after graduating from Bryn Mawr College, she enrolled at UC Berkeley for both an MBA and a master's degree in public health. Though initially nervous that her values might clash with those of MBA students, she quickly found herself surrounded by students with similar passions.
Liebermann soon joined Kaiser Permanente, one of the nation's largest not-for-profit health plans, serving more than 9.1 million members. As an integrated health provider and insurer, KP's business model relies heavily on keeping members healthy and finding more effective ways to deliver health care.
It was KP's chief nursing officer who first mused about a modest idea: an innovation center to screen the effectiveness of all the new technologies that were being pitched constantly at nurses. Liebermann soon began working on a more ambitious vision, to explore health care innovation in general.
What began as the kernel of an idea soon picked up traction around the organization. People working with information technology wanted better ways to test new gadgets and systems in a realistic setting. People designing hospitals wanted to experiment with ways to make them more humane and efficient.
Upon opening its doors in 2006, the Innovation Center initially focused on screening new medical technologies and figuring out the possible ripple effects on health care delivery. One of the first breakthroughs, developed by KP's Innovation Consultancy, was a new system that uses both new technology and new procedures to improve medication administration. That system is now operating in all 40 of KP's hospitals around the country.
The center soon broadened out, examining the social and organizational aspects of keeping members healthier.
"It's Public Health 101, focusing on how to keep people healthy and well," she says. "How do we reach out into the pathways of our patients, and help them make the right decisions early on? If we can give them a way to refill their prescriptions while waiting for the bus, and help them make healthy eating choices, then we'll be a lot more successful in meeting their needs and ours."
One of the Center's current projects is Imagining Care Anywhere, an experiential project that looks at how technology can provide health care to patients when they are at home, work or in community settings.
The idea isn't simply to explore novel technologies, but to see if they make sense in daily life and actually improve health outcomes. It's as much an exploration of people and society as it is of technology. For Liebermann, the future is just beginning.