Toby Cosgrove warns innovators about healthcare industry: 'They'll hate it'

Innovation requires persistence, former Cleveland Clinic CEO Toby Cosgrove said. (Paige Minemyer)

Former Cleveland Clinic CEO Toby Cosgrove said healthcare’s potential innovators need to have one key trait—persistence. 

The industry is resistant to change, he said, so new ideas aren’t likely to be met with a warm reception. Instead, expect colleagues to push back. 

“Don’t expect everyone to love [your ideas]—they’ll hate it," he said. “Don’t get discouraged when your ideas aren’t immediately embraced.” 

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Cosgrove was the keynote speaker at the Veterans Health Administration’s Innovation Experience on Wednesday morning. He stepped down as CEO of Cleveland Clinic in January after 13 years as head of the health system and is now an executive adviser for Google Cloud's healthcare and life sciences team.

Cosgrove, both a veteran of the armed forces and of the healthcare industry, said skeptical “hole-pokers” can derail all kinds of potentially beneficial ideas. But oftentimes, trying something different means having no idea what the results will be. 

For example, Cosgrove said that when he was working as a cardiac surgeon and believed patients were receiving too many blood transfusions, he cut back on them to see if that would improve their experience. When the cardiologist questioned him, he admitted that he wasn’t sure if the effort would pay off but thought it was a calculated risk worth taking.

RELATED: Cleveland Clinic’s new CEO Tom Mihaljevic aims to make the system ‘the safest place in healthcare, anywhere’ 

He also emphasized the importance of starting small and said that it’s often the ideas that seem the smallest that end up being the most innovative and impactful. Simple solutions can sprout from looking at what’s working in operations now and what could be done to improve, he said. 

“Those [ideas] are fun and they’re rewarding,” Cosgrove said. “They let you use your creative juices to make things better.” 

Inspiration can come from unexpected places, too, he said. For instance, he developed a clamp for the left atrial appendage—where blood tends to clot and increase risk of stroke—that was inspired by his daughters’ hair barrettes. 

That clamp has been used more than 10,000 times to date, Cosgrove said. 

While the innovative examples provided by Cosgrove himself are on the clinical side, he said what keeps him up at night, and where there’s the greatest room for future growth, is cost and new tech. 

“We are under tremendous pressure in the United States...about the cost of healthcare,” he said. 

RELATED: Cleveland Clinic’s Toby Cosgrove, former HHS head Kathleen Sebelius talk future of healthcare, ACA 

In innovation, cost and technology are likely to go hand-in-hand, he said. Cleveland Clinic, for example, has 2,000 employees involved in revenue cycle management, he said. Artificial intelligence could streamline that process significantly, cutting costs and improving efficiency. 

Another area ripe for future innovation is leadership development. Healthcare needs administrators and often has to train people internally for top roles. Cosgrove said he didn’t really have a grasp on what a CEO does at the time he took over the Cleveland Clinic. 

But strong leadership, once it’s built, can serve as a catalyst for further innovation in the ranks and sets the tone that trying new things is valued, he said. 

“It’s amazing how leadership...just cascades down through the rest of the organization,”  Cosgrove said.