“If you’re a healthcare innovator with an idea for solving a problem that affects the rehab community, let’s talk. Spaulding’s open for business,” says Boston’s Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital’s Dr. David Binder. He leads their innovation team and wants everyone to know about their newly energized, hospital-wide commitment to internal and external innovation.
Binder’s just wrapped up a successful 2016 hackathon, launched its winners into a new accelerator program, and is excited about Spaulding’s nascent role in the Boston health innovation and startup community. The hospital is poised to become a local and national innovation leader, he believes.
Spaulding, part of the Partners HealthCare ecosystem and a teaching affiliate of Harvard Medical School, has long been a recognized, if under appreciated, gem within Boston’s health system.
They’re the lead hospital within Partners Continuing Care, a group that includes two inpatient rehabilitation hospitals with 25 outpatient centers, a long-term acute-care hospital, and two skilled nursing facilities.
Spaulding’s also home to the Harvard Medical School’s Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. As recently as last year, U.S. News & World Report ranked them as top 5 amongst their national rehab hospital peers.
But, if Spaulding’s historically not been top of mind for you, that’s understandable. Rehab hospitals have always lived in the shadow of their acute care siblings. Saving lives during a crisis will always be more dramatic than helping patients during long-term recovery.
And, of course, competing for attention with world leaders like Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston Children’s Hospital, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, and Brigham and Women’s Hospital is challenging at the best of times.
This all changed forever in April 2013. Within the space of 2 weeks, terrorists rocked the city with a deadly bombing at the Boston Marathon—and, fortuitously, Spaulding opened its state-of-the-art facility in our ocean-facing Charlestown neighborhood.
Spaulding was uniquely equipped to help over 30 of the most catastrophically injured survivors. While not a trauma hospital, they delivered care to patients coping with everything from post-traumatic stress and brain-damaging concussions to full limb amputations and life-threatening blast burns. Their impact was profound.
“Sometimes you have to wonder if there’s a higher power at work when the city’s rehabilitation hospital opens up just as the city needs it most,” noted Tim Sullivan, director of communications for the hospital, in 2014.
Going into 2017, Spaulding’s making an obvious move for recognition as an elite leader among its national rehab hospital rivals. From top five to best rehab hospital in the country? “Soon” and “yes”, they’d argue.
Spaulding’s Dr. Binder makes the case quite strongly. In his mind, the hospital’s credentials for clinical excellence are unquestioned. Its new facilities are among the best of their kind in the world. Nobody’s team is more skilled or committed, either. And, its teaching partnership with Harvard Medical School continues to draw ambitious young clinicians, he adds.
A crucial differentiator for Spaulding, Binder believes, will be innovation. Newly graduated from MIT’s MBA program, he’s bought into the power of cultivating an internal culture of innovation while, at the same time, collaborating externally with entrepreneurs from outside the hospital walls. Binder specifically credits Spaulding’s medical leader, world-renowned brain injury expert Dr. Ross Zafonte, for creating an environment where this could happen.
David Storto, President of the Spaulding Rehabilitation Network, weighs in with his vision, “As an international leader in rehabilitation medicine, Spaulding is committed to fostering innovation for the benefit of not only our own patients and the immediate communities we serve, but also to advance science and healthcare around the world for all people with physical disabilities.”
“People with disabilities are often an overlooked audience for many start-ups and products, but we know that new technologies can make vast improvements in their ability to have the highest quality of life possible. Spaulding is becoming an increasingly important part of the Greater Boston health science innovation scene, one of the most vibrant in the world, and our leadership in this area enables us to carry out our mission in a new and dynamic way,” Storto added.
When Binder approached Storto and Zafonte with a proposal for establishing an innovation leadership role—believed to be the first of its kind amongst rehab hospitals—they didn’t hesitate.
They even supported his idea for a 2015 Spaulding health technology hackathon, despite, Binder chuckles, perhaps not really being sure how it would all come together.
Organized with support from the MIT Hacking Medicine group, Spauldings first hackathon was scary, but successful. More than 100 local health entrepreneurs worked over a weekend to identify opportunities and hack together possible solutions. Prizes were modest but enthusiasm extremely high, Binder says. Observations from the event were later published so that others could benefit from Spaulding’s experience.
Parkabler, a 2015 winner, is a good example of the innovation Binder wants to see. They’re hoping to catalog and map wheelchair-accessible parking spots across Boston and New England. Surprisingly, neither Google or Apple capture this information in their mapping applications—a big problem for Spaulding’s patient population. A simple trip to the grocery store can become a frustrating exercise if parking is not readily available.
Binder, again with MIT Hacking Medicine’s support, went on to organize Spaulding’s 2nd hackathon in October 2016 with an even sweeter prize: acceptance into the hospital’s new accelerator program. The hackathon’s 2015 success attracted sponsors including Microsoft, Foley Hoag, Beacon Growth Capital, HDR Architecture, and Mad*Pow Design.Three winners are now working directly with Binder and other clinicians to refine their thinking and, possibly, bring their ideas to market.
Juliana Cherston, a 2016 winner and PhD student at the MIT Media Lab observes, “We had a lot of fun at the Spaulding Hackathon, and we particularly appreciated receiving advice throughout the weekend from medical professionals. The accelerator is a great way to continue to receive support and advice from doctors who work directly with the patients that will benefit from any tools we build.”
External collaborations are important, but Binder isn’t overlooking his Spaulding colleagues as a source of innovation. He’s held office hours where anyone in the hospital—top to bottom—can brainstorm with him about solutions to problems they see in their daily work. It’s a work in progress, but Binder is confident. The Spaulding team’s first-hand experience with patients and their needs is an invaluable source of innovative ideas, he believes.
Binder’s also engaging with his local peers. He describes his fellow innovation champions within Partners HealthCare, at Boston Children’s Hospital, and at nearby health accelerators and incubators like Pulse@MassChallenge as highly collegial and supportive. This makes a lot of sense. Many followers of the local health community believe that greater collaboration among these innovation teams can’t help but multiply the impact of their individual efforts.
There are many challenges for Spaulding as they try and realize this vision, Binder acknowledges. He rattles off a list that includes standing out in a city with many existing health startup accelerators, winning over an organization that’s not familiar with a structured approach to innovation, and scaling his efforts to pursue even more opportunities like the hackathon and accelerator.
Binder wraps up our tour by way of Spaulding’s legendary ocean terrace, an elevated view of Boston’s waterfront with some of the most beautiful scenery imaginable. The combination of a busy urban harbor, Boston’s iconic skyline, the fully-accessible Mayor Thomas Menino family playground, and a patient and their visitor quietly enjoying some fresh air is inspiring.
Endless possibilities—for the City of Boston, Spaulding Rehab, and Dr. Binder. Spaulding’s open for business, indeed.
James A. Gardner, @jamesagardner, is a Boston-area sales and marketing professional with a passion for consumer technologies and all things health, web & social. He started his career with Procter & Gamble before earning his MBA at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management. Since then, James has served senior clients as a consultant with McKinsey & Company, led complex digital projects with Boston-area agencies, and built several high-performing marketing teams. He’s also been published and quoted in multiple professional publications, most recently CMSWire, CIO.com, eHealthcare Strategy & Trends, and MedTech Boston.
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