Putting patients first is a mantra shared by employees across the UW Medicine health system. As an embedded part of the work culture, clinical staff are continually seeing new opportunities to improve care and outcomes for their patients.

“Innovation is UW Medicine’s secret sauce and what makes us unique,” says Lisa Brandenburg, the chief health system officer of UW Medicine who oversees its hospitals and clinics. “The people doing the work know the most about how to improve the work.”

But, Brandenburg says, there are funding gaps in applying some of these innovations to the patient experience. Now, generous support from forward-looking donors Christine and Jordan Kaplan is helping clinical teams implement their biggest, boldest ideas.

The UW Medicine Patients Are First Innovation Pilots (PAFIP) launched in 2020, with funding from the Kaplans and matching funds. Soon to announce its second round of grants, PAFIP taps into the knowledge of UW Medicine faculty and staff for solutions to drive better patient care and then provides grants for them to implement their ideas.

“UW Medicine has greatly impressed us,” says Jordan Kaplan. “Its innovative programs support not only the university but the entire Seattle community.”

While the UW system has many built-in approaches to foster structured improvements daily, Brandenburg notes this pilot program is unique because it focuses on projects that rise above the day-to-day, requiring multidisciplinary collaboration and additional funding.

The first request for proposals generated a much larger response than expected: Nearly 100 ideas were submitted. Then came the tough job of selecting and funding two.

Increasing Equity in Breast Cancer Screening
The idea for one of the projects selected, a human-centered design approach to eliminating breast cancer disparities, predated the pilot program but lacked funding. Led by Victoria Fang, MD, associate medical director at UW Neighborhood Clinics, the project sought to address the inequities in a healthcare system where Black women receive fewer and poorer-quality screenings for breast cancer. As a result, they are at a disproportionate risk of dying from the disease compared to non-Hispanic white women.

The proposal was a perfect fit for PAFIP because it sought collaborators who brought new perspectives. Specifically, the program developed an online chatbot prototype to facilitate breast cancer screening, with input from Black women.

A crucial component of the project’s success was collaborator Bridgette Hempstead, founder of Cierra Sisters, an advocacy organization supporting Black women living with breast cancer. Hempstead conducted 21 interviews with Black women living in King and Pierce counties. In addition, the project included UW Primary Care staff, breast cancer specialists, the Office of Healthcare Equity, the UW Department of Human Centered Design & Engineering, the Division of General Internal Medicine and the Division of Hematology.

Using Hempstead’s interviews to understand screening barriers and get feedback on the prototype, the team created a chatbot to help the UW system more proactively and effectively engage with Black women patients to reduce their risk of breast cancer. The program is now seeking additional funding to further refine the prototype.

“This work has the potential to help us improve access to other cancer screenings and make significant progress in health equity at UW Medicine,” says Brandenburg.

Living Liver Donors Expand Access to Transplants
The second groundbreaking project selected for PAFIP zeroed in on a different unmet need: Too many patients at UW Medicine were waiting for a liver transplant without enough donors. In most people’s minds, the problem was unsolvable, since liver donors are usually deceased.

That’s why the project lead — Kiran Bambha, MD, MSc, medical director of the UW Medicine Living Donor Liver Transplant program — and her team want everyone to know that organ donation from a living person is possible. Thanks to the liver’s regenerative qualities, the organ can regrow in both donor and recipient, with half of the donors fully recovered in six weeks and the remainder within three months.

The Living Donor Advocacy Initiative sought to harness the power of friends and family by creating a Living Donor Champion toolkit. This resource, including social media examples, brochures, questionnaires and educational videos, helps people use their networks to find a donor. During the funding period, nearly 250 people inquired about becoming a donor and 50 clinical evaluations were completed, resulting in 11 living liver donor transplants. Another benefit is a savings of about 75% in surgery costs, due to transplants being performed in earlier stages of liver disease.

In December 2020, Kris Anderson, 51, of Redmond, received a lobe of liver from her daughter Lauren, 26. It was the Pacific Northwest’s first living-donor liver transplant for unresectable liver-only metastatic colorectal cancer.

With the initiative’s success, the group now seeks funding for clinic space and additional staff to meet the increased demand for surgery.

“I didn’t know how easily a liver regenerates,” says Brandenburg. “The fact that you can take modern tools like social media and find people willing to donate part of their liver is a great example of taking a simple idea, applying it to an amazing medical advancement and making a huge impact. This program literally saves lives.”

A Springboard for Additional Learning and Innovation
Among the nearly 100 projects submitted to PAFIP for consideration in the first round, common themes included advancing diversity, equity and inclusion; improving communication between patients and families; supporting care delivery protocols; and using artificial intelligence to improve care. The projects that weren’t selected gave program leaders insight into further untapped potential.

“Many of us have ideas about how to improve the work we do every day, but we don’t often feel like we have the time, funding or capacity to do something with those ideas,” says Brandenburg.

Beyond funding new ideas that transform patient care, Brandenburg also imagines how PAFIP could evolve into something bigger with additional philanthropic support.

“In an ideal world, we could spin off an entire patient-focused innovation lab,” says Brandenburg. “We could invest a couple million each year and see what’s coming out of it; over time, there would no doubt be sufficient advancements to make it self-sustaining. I’d like to see us move in that direction.”

From its initial inspiration to its second round of supporting new healthcare projects, this innovative pilot program was brought to life by donor generosity. Their visionary support, says Brandenburg, is helping healthcare providers advance creative ideas that can improve health for everyone in the community.

“The PAFIP program wouldn’t be possible without the support of our donors. I’m extremely grateful for their support, and I hope they are proud of the role they are playing in improving our patient experience,” says Brandenburg.

Support Innovation that Improves Patient Care

If you’d like to help clinical staff pursue their bold ideas to enhance the patient experience, make a gift to the Patients Are First Innovation Fund.

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