Practical Problem-Solving Helps Sanford Health Commercialize Ideas

Practical Problem-Solving Helps Sanford Health Commercialize Ideas

Sometimes big ideas come from helping the tiniest of people.

In the 1970s, what is now Sanford Health needed a way to transport premature babies from Native American reservations hundreds of miles away to its hospital in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

Health systems were starting to use helicopters as air ambulances. But there weren’t a lot of options on the market for airplanes, which are faster, cheaper to operate and capable of flying longer distances.

Hospital managers provided a King Air turboprop aircraft to a couple of creative airplane mechanics at the local airport who retrofitted it into the organization’s first fixed-wing airplane.

Those aircraft innovators ultimately went to work for the organization and continue to fine-tune ideas and work closely with manufacturers to reduce weight, increase space and improve safety. And Sanford Health is now the largest rural nonprofit health care organization in the U.S., serving an area larger than Texas with 44 medical centers and nearly 500 clinics.

Expert commercialization team

Sanford Health has formalized its innovation and commercialization process. More than 50 physicians, researchers and staffers now work to test and develop more than 150 new devices, therapies, software, tools and other methods.

Those ideas include a catheter that reduces damage from accidental pulls, unique research that seeks to attack cancer through the nerves, the use of artificial intelligence to spot cancer cells in CT images and a vascular stent graft that’s been licensed to Medtronic and might allow for the treatment of aneurysms in the chest and abdomen in patients who otherwise wouldn’t qualify for surgery.

Inventors of those ideas work closely with the commercialization team members who have backgrounds in mechanical engineering, biomedical engineering and research. They are experts in intellectual property development, including all regulatory and legal requirements.

And they are creative. Rather than running a clinical trial on its own for the stent graft mentioned above, Sanford Health is collaborating with New York University, Massachusetts General Hospital, Johns Hopkins and other systems to pool the results so they can be compared and analyzed as one cohesive effort. That unique approach has prompted other health systems to ask for guidance on navigating what can be a complicated process of taking a device to market.

Midwest practicality

Like me, many of our staff and inventors grew up on Midwestern farms where self-reliance, working with your hands and solving problems on the spot are must-have skills.

Yes, rural economies are struggling and access to health care is a growing problem here. But innovative health systems like Sanford Health meet the challenge head-on by tapping our talented staff through commercializing and developing ideas that reduce expenses, increase revenue and improve patient care.

Technology plays a big part. Telehealth connections and our partnership with TytoCare home medical kits allow family physicians to treat patients at a distance or quickly determine that the problem needs in-person care. That original fixed-wing aircraft has grown into a fleet of four airplanes and four helicopters that can quickly transport those critical patients from the hinterland to a modern medical center staffed with all specialties.

Still, these latest innovations share the same basic purpose as those dating back to the late 1800s when we opened and in the 1970s at that airplane hangar: help our patients.

The formula isn’t complicated. But successful commercialization does require organizations to be willing to create a culture where clinical and nonclinical front-line staff have the freedom to dream, brainstorm, tinker, test and develop new ideas in the ever-evolving world of health care.

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