How University Hospitals Leveraged Innovation in Response to COVID-19

Published on Jun. 02, 2020

University Hospitals’ agile response to coronavirus has kept this large regional hospital in Northeast Ohio on top of the coronavirus pandemic. Where other health institutions have cut innovation resources, University Hospitals (UH) redeployed their team to tackle this crisis. 

In the virtual event “Leveraging Hospital Innovation to Help Diagnose, Care For and Monitor COVID-19 Patients”, organized by Plug and Play Health, we featured a fireside chat conversation with two world-class guests: Dr. Eric Beck, COO of University Hospitals, who has a wide experience in healthcare and crisis management, and David Sylvan, President of University Hospitals Ventures, who, along with the rest of his team, was tasked with various COVID-19 response initiatives for the healthcare system. 

In this post, we summarize the most important takeaways from the virtual event.

During the event, five global startups from the Plug and Play network also shared their COVID-19 related solutions. Check out their innovative technologies and watch the full event here: 

What the Covid-19 Response and a Fire Fighting Have in Common 

When the severity and the inevitability of the COVID-19 outbreak became apparent, Dr. Beck was charged with rapidly setting up a unified command center for University Hospitals. Drawing on his past experiences in crisis management at scale, the physician already had understanding and insight into the task of creating a structured center based on interoperability.  

“Those past experiences were a great preparation, in many ways, but this is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before, and I don’t think my contemporaries have encountered an emergency of this scale and magnitude,” said Dr. Beck. 

Dr. Beck noted that the one common denominator in the Covid-19 crisis was the system built as a result of devastating wildfires in California in the 1970s. The same basic principles were adopted in the 1980s for hospital systems. Ultimately named the National Incident Management System in 2004, it has been adopted widely as a systematic and proactive approach to respond to crises.  As a former paramedic and firefighter, Dr. Beck was familiar with the protocol.

Dr. Beck refers to this pandemic as “unique” though because “it's affecting the entire country, the entire world, which means that the typical and mutual aid resources that you would mobilize to support your region or your institution, are also facing the same sort of crisis. That limits the ability to scale redundant resources, puts added pressure on things like the supply chain, as well as on the ability to flex or provide bench strength, replenishments, and staff.”

Innovation Emerges from the Crisis

“We have received more innovation disclosures in the last seven weeks than we did all of last year,” said Sylvan. “The challenge is to make sure we appropriately respond to all of them.”

Sylvan talked about how the organization’s mindset changed with the pandemic. “Usually, in order to get a new technology or new process considered and approved, you need to go through legal, IT, stakeholders… That can be months or a year. Now, there’s a desire to do things differently. All the individuals I just mentioned raised their hands and committed to getting things done. It literally took days to go from the idea to turn the ‘on’ switch.”

The crisis has proven to be a turning point as the healthcare industry realizes how to meet patients’ needs. “It’s been a learning journey for us,” said Dr. Beck and he adds that this has been a perfect way “to accelerate a culture of innovation in the midst of a fairly scary reality.”

“Ironically, we're seeing more innovation output on any measure or dimension during the pandemic, and we're also making thoughtful investments in our future, and that's really thinking about what consumer sentiment will look like post-pandemic.”

Employees All-In and Redeployed

An important factor in the success of University Hospital’s response was that all employees stepped up to support the strategy in whatever way necessary. “Rank and experience fell by the wayside,” Dr Beck noted, as staff collaborated across departments and in non-traditional ways to rapidly accelerate solutions. 

David Sylvan, President of UH Ventures, was no exception. He was tasked with finding and securing the coveted PPE, or personal protective equipment, in whatever way possible. 

“I knew nothing about manufacturing gowns,” said David Sylvan, “or about 3D printing swabs, about the technologies used to 3D print face shields… We all became quick studies, with the support of industries large and small in our ecosystem.” The urgency of the situation caused by the pandemic eliminated traditional friction.

In order to find the right solutions, David discussed drawing on the deep external networks, partnerships inside the hospitals and modeling the hospitals priorities to fulfill unmet needs.

“More often than not, solutions came from non-traditional sources that prior to this may not have been manufacturers of medical-grade equipment. They pivoted pretty quickly,” Sylvan noted. 

Several of UH Venture’s portfolio startups also emerged as solutions, including: 

  • riskLD: Offers a solution that provides clinical decision support to the hospital’s labor and delivery teams, ensuring evidence-based care. 
  • TempTraq: Allows the hospital to continuously monitoring the temperatures of employees and healthcare workers.

The Exception: Cluster Outbreaks

The development of the pandemic across the state of Ohio has been different than originally anticipated. Healthcare institutions were expecting a “tidal wave” type scenario, where the virus would hit all hospitals within a region at the same time. However, due to aggressive policy measures from the state government, Ohio is, fortunately, experiencing fewer cases and a flatter curve. 

There are exceptions, though. Ohio has seen cluster outbreaks in congregate living facilities: nursing facilities, assisted living, group homes, senior housing, multifamily units, and even correctional facilities. In these high-risk settings, there is often an inability to physically distance one person from another. He explained that the team at University Hospitals had to determine how to manage resources, treat in place, and remotely monitor the health of patients. 

Given the relatively low Covid-19 patient occupancy rate in their hospitals, UH had room for a maneuver. Clinicians could be redeployed to support the recovery in other areas, and UH put “a fair amount of investment into that, with tools, technology, processing, and people.”

What UH Has Learned from This Crisis

From Dr. Beck’s point of view, there are several factors that can mitigate similar situations in the future:

  • Industry collaboration: Regional hospitals must work together to conquer coronavirus. “This pandemic has brought all of our neighboring institutions together on a daily basis, coordinating, sharing data… to really respond in a way that's ecosystem driven, as opposed to healthcare-institution driven. I think this could be a wonderful accelerant to our innovation strategy here in Northeast Ohio, and I suspect that's relevant for other parts of the country or the world.”
  • Supply Chain: Healthcare institutions need to think about diversifying, stabilizing, and securing their supply chain in the near term, so they aren’t scrambling during the next crisis.

The New Normal Includes Innovation

Innovation will play an important role in the future. UH Ventures’ relationship with Plug and Play helped launch that focus, but as Dr. Beck notes, today “is one of those inflection points for healthcare to really think differently about how we meet patient needs, the constraints of physical and social distancing, the consumer sentiment, the reluctance to seek care, to stay at home…,” said Dr. Beck. “All of those things have really allowed an incredible amount of innovation and acceleration, things that we knew were possible, but that we haven't adopted or scaled in the healthcare space.”

Innovative ways of treating patients may also address the wave of need as the country begins to open back up. “There’s a fair amount of pent up demand that will need to be serviced quickly, there are patients with chronic diseases and other risk factors that have been sitting at home, reluctant to seek care, and they’re obviously going to hit our door soon”.  For example, the wide adoption of telehealth will be important in the future. And although telehealth use in the Midwest has lagged, Dr. Beck remarked that the resulting setback has been noted, and it will be important to make thoughtful and innovative investments in the future.

Startups Addressing COVID-19

During this virtual event, we also had with us five innovative startups that are relevant to health systems dealing with COVID-19. The startups are: 


BlueDot is a Toronto-based startup whose outbreak risk software safeguards lives by mitigating exposure to infectious diseases that threaten human health.


Infermedica tackles the problem of unnecessary medical care and waste, providing hospitals, health systems and insurance companies with a set of advanced preliminary diagnosis and triage tools.

Vocalis Health

Vocalis Health is an Israel-based startup. They have developed an AI-based platform that uses voice to evaluate an individual’s health status. 

Retrieve Medical

Retrieve Medical’s proprietary real-time software called Retrieve Dx™, is a decision support application. It brings past and potential diagnoses to the forefront, allowing physicians to provide the highest quality of care from a holistic point of view. 

Redivus Health

Redivus Health offers and actionable, clinical decision support (CDS) system designed to guide clinicians through time-critical, high-mortality medical events. 

Plug and Play has launched a global COVID-19 accelerator dedicated to scaling the world’s most promising startups that can help address the coronavirus pandemic. Join our platform today.