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Innovative Working in Healthcare

Future-proof healthcare begins with the staff. They know better than anyone where opportunities lie in how to organise things more intelligently. Organisations that allow healthcare professionals to develop ideas and share knowledge stimulate real innovation. The course Vernieuwend Werken in de Zorg (Innovative Working in Healthcare) lets healthcare professionals put their own ideas into practice.

‘More and more people need healthcare, we can no longer afford the costs and we foresee that few professionals want to continue working in the healthcare sector'. Maartje van Boekholt, innovation quartermaster at Reinaerde, a Dutch healthcare organisation, outlines why it is so urgent that we organise our healthcare differently.'

The Working in Healthcare Committee, which was commissioned by the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport(HWS) to explore the need for innovation in healthcare, also came to this conclusion. According to the committee, the healthcare sector must change fundamentally if it is to continue to meet the demand for healthcare. Important pillars are: retention and engagement of healthcare professionals, educational innovation, social and technological innovation, and management based on a shared social task.

About Innovative Working in Healthcare

During the three-day course ‘Innovative Working in Healthcare’, healthcare professionals gain knowledge about social innovation. Herein, a lot of attention is paid to personal skills. During workouts, participants work on their own ideas that will help to improve their work. Their supervisors are there to advise and assist them. Halfway through, participants meet for an evening session about leadership. The programme ends with a joint meeting to consolidate the learning gains and to plan the first follow-up steps. The Ministry of HWS has recognised the course as a leading project in healthcare innovation.

Maartje van Boekholt and her colleague Hanno de Schipper are convinced that healthcare professionals are the key to real innovation. However, the challenge is that care workers need the tools to do so. That's why Van Boekholt and De Schipper developed the training course Innovative Work in Healthcare last year, together with the Erasmus University. ‘It struck me that in healthcare we consider learning and development as acquiring knowledge, especially medical knowledge,' says Van Boekholt. But what you really need is for people to be able to apply that knowledge.


Organising healthcare differently

Change starts with people on the workfloor, says Van Boekholt. However, people who are on the ward or who coordinate are hardly included in decision making. One consequence is that employees leave faster than we can recruit them. That's why I thought: can't we develop a programme that also helps with retention and motivation? A practical course that addresses the question of how nurses, healthcare workers and counsellors can improve, innovate and change things was actually not available yet.

Technology is only a tool, adds colleague Hanno de Schipper, strategic advisor for social innovation at Reinaerde. Various studies have shown that a large part of innovation lies in the untapped potential of employees. The causes may lie in the thresholds that people experience; that they are held back in a certain way, are not seen or heard, or do not consult their network.

Port as an example

In her search for examples of courses that prepare employees for the future, Van Boekholt came across the Rotterdam docks. There, Dr Niels van der Weerdt from Erasmus University Rotterdam has been offering the Social Innovation course to port employees for nine years. I sent him an email straight away. Van Boekholt saw the similarities between healthcare and the ports. Port employees are doers. Just like in healthcare, it is a group with their feet in the clay, so to say.

A plan for the course on Innovative Working in Healthcare was therefore quickly drawn up. Van der Weerdt: 'I provide the general knowledge. Then we look at the specific issues in the sector. Innovation has a rather negative connotation because it is often used in the wrong way. That's why I'm looking for people in my network who can talk about this from the practical side, such as HilverZorg's CEO André Brand. He has examples of where it works well, but also where it doesn't work well. I am convinced of the benefits of social innovation, but you won't hear hallelujah stories during the course. That is also the input we have from the university - we act as curators of high-quality knowledge.

Van der Weerdt has noticed that the subject is relevant to many sectors. That is why he founded the Social Innovation Academy this year; a social enterprise within Erasmus University. We want to offer insights on a larger scale. The starting point is to always do that together with partners, such as, in the healthcare sector, with Reinaerde and the Vereniging Gehandicaptenzorg Nederland (Dutch Association for the Care of the Disabled)'.

Van Boekholt also made contact with the Action Learning Network, part of the action programme Working in Healthcare of the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport. Seven healthcare organisations then quickly joined in. What persuaded them to let employees participate in the course? The necessary persuasiveness', says Van Boekholt. And we work with proven ingredients through the experiences of the dockworkers. In addition, we respond to the need of organisations to retain certain people. Those seven organisations said: we will let our most important employees participate in this.

Zoomsession IWiH

Manager offers help

A special feature of Innovative Work in Healthcare is that employees get to work together with their managers. The participants work on their own ideas for improvement. That was Maartje's input,' says Van der Weerdt. I insisted on this duo approach', says Van Boekholt, 'because the manager has an essential role as a sponsor or partner - they have to offer what the healthcare worker needs to give the idea a place'.

Even more than in the ports, during the course the healthcare employees work on their own projects. We really want to make the connection with practice', says Van Boekholt. The participants' own ideas are part of the lessons. You have to apply knowledge to get it into the capillaries. And something concrete comes out of it that they can use in their organisation.

She mentions a concrete example from the pilot project: one of the participants said that the residents of the healthcare facility were getting restless because they did not know what had to be done in a day. It takes a lot of time to go back to those people and tell them that. She then came up with an idea from the hospitality industry. They sometimes work with buzzers. Her idea was: if we give them to the clients, we offer them visual insight, we make use of a technique that already exists and it saves time and less stress for the employees. It is great that the healthcare worker looked outside of her own sector for a solution, Van Boekholt thinks. And she subsequently contacted suppliers herself.

Instilling confidence

A nice thing is that employers give their employees confidence by letting them participate in this course', says Van der Weerdt. As an organisation you say: you can work out an innovative idea and in principle we will just carry it out. In the ports, several employees who followed the course have meanwhile risen to managerial positions, he says. They have learned how important trust is. As a result, they started managing in a different way. A certain innovation is created bottom up - by the people on the workfloor - which you cannot introduce top-down. That is the power of this programme.

Participants in Innovative Working in Healthcare also benefited greatly from each other, says Van Boekholt. Normally, healthcare professionals from different organisations rarely speak to each other. Now they could exchange experiences. It is great to see what a giant leap the participants have made in their development and leadership, adds De Schipper. We expected it to do something to the happiness of the participants at work and that turned out to be the case. Several participants told us beforehand that they were at a crossroad: did they still want to continue working for this employer or in this sector? They wanted to enjoy their work again and develop themselves. That is certainly an important effect of the course: they remained in the care sector.

"We really want to make the connection with how things are at work. The participants' own ideas are part of the lessons. You have to apply knowledge to ensure that everyone uses it on a day to day basis. This way it makes a lasting impact on the organisation."

From physical to digital

The kick-off of the Innovative Working in Healthcare course took place at VGN in Utrecht, says Maartje van Boekholt. The day after, the Netherlands went into lockdown because of the Covid-19 pandemic. We then changed the programme and had to go more digital - adapt things and be agile.'

The initiators used online engagement platform Plek for this. At Plek, participants could share knowledge digitally. They could also find all the information and teaching material on the platform.

Director Rik Mulder of Plek: 'Engagement is about being heard, being stimulated to think along with others and sharing that with others. Then you get a learning organisation. According to Mulder, the idea behind Innovative Working in Healthcare fits the philosophy of Plek perfectly. Sharing knowledge creates an innovative mindset. You can engage everyone in the organisation who has ideas and wants to contribute.

In Mulder's experience, top management of organisations is often sceptical about the role of employees in innovation. If you're looking for 'the next big thing', then yes, it usually doesn't work. But if you make it smaller and more practical and add up a series of ideas, then it really does make a difference. And what I think is also important: you give people the opportunity to spout their ideas. If they can't express them - if nobody listens to them - they become cynical and unmotivated.