Originally published on CTSA Update
Got an innovative idea on how to improve health care? If so, you are likely to run into Suresh Balu at some point. Born in India, Balu came to the U.S. 26 years ago to study data visualization and virtual reality. He is now program director for the Duke Institute for Health Innovation (DIHI) and director of strategy and innovation for the Clinical and Translational Science Institute.
“My job is to serve as a catalyst for innovation in health and health care,” says Balu, who has worked on projects that range from mobile apps to machine learning.
Here, in his own words, he explains how his career has been shaped by, and continues to shape, innovation.
What do you do at Duke?
My work at DIHI is to help anyone who wants to improve the life of patients and patient care at Duke by doing new things in new ways.
Innovations can come from any person – a clinician, a staff person, a student or resident, or a person in supplies or some other support position. DIHI identifies innovative solutions that provide a better outcome for the people we take care of. Then we do what we can to advance these ideas to a level that can be used by lots of people. That can mean looking at strategy and budgets, finding partners, testing products, bringing in new team members – whatever it takes.
My position in DIHI also offers me the opportunity to look at strategy and innovation from the big picture – where should we focus our resources over the next five to ten years as health care changes rapidly, and with increasing use of enabling technologies. This involves many conversations with researchers, patients, health systems, policy experts, other academic health centers and industry partners . . . anyone who has good ideas.
An important role that DIHI plays is bridging gaps – identifying the right problems so we can find the right solutions.
What are some of the projects you’ve worked on?
One of my favorites has been working with clinicians, researchers, and medical students supported by the CTSA to develop a novel program for kidney care that brought together research and care delivery functions. The project developed sophisticated analytics to identify patients with rapid decline in kidney functions who needed a nephrology or a transplant consult. The project not only identified patients and stratified their risk, but involved interventions to get them on an appropriate care pathway. This unique collaborative project brought together clinical specialists, pharmacists, care coordinators/managers, cross-campus machine learning experts, and business professionals to solve a complex population health problem.
We are currently involved with the Baseline Study – a collaboration among Duke, Stanford, and Google. This study plans to recruit roughly 10,000 participants to longitudinally collect and integrate clinical data, imaging data and molecular data to better understand human health and disease progression. My role has been to help with business strategy, finance, and planning of operations.
A small team from DIHI is also working closely with the PCORnet Coordinating Center principal investigators to develop a sustainable business plan for PCORnet. The PCORnet initiative was started by the National Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI) to create a network of networks to enable faster, cheaper and high-quality patient-centered research. This type of transformative infrastructure innovation is key to the future of research.
DIHI has something called a “Living Lab.” Can you tell us what this is?
The health innovation living Lab is an infrastructure that leverages the capabilities and resources in Duke Health to rapidly validate new models of care or new technologies and to generate evidence needed to demonstrate clinical utility and economic utility prior to scaling of innovation. We can also help to shape digital interventions – by piloting them in a real world environment at Duke Health. We have already tested ideas for using technology to improve care of depression, predict surgical complications, create a telemedicine intervention for diabetes care, and the project for chronic kidney disease. Most digital /technology solutions fail or have poor adoption because they do not fit well into the clinical workflow. The Living Lab helps to rapidly identify gaps and develop solutions that align with the workflows. With the Living Lab we drive innovation by testing technology solutions with the same rigor that Duke brings to scientific research questions.
What education prepared you for your role at DIHI?
I grew up and completed my undergraduate education in chemical engineering and graduate education in informatics in India before coming to the U.S. nearly three decades ago. I was very involved in visualization – how to convey complex information to make it actionable. At UNC, I started work on a PhD that was focused on using virtual reality, head-mounted displays. This kind of technology has application across several industries and sectors – design, architecture and space planning, health care, gaming, and training and simulation for defense, to name a few. The draw of working in this exciting field in a venture-funded entrepreneurial firm trumped the pursuit of academic goals and even before I submitted by doctoral thesis, I joined a local start-up. This gave me great exposure to a wide variety of roles – from software developer, to chief strategist to business development.
Subsequently, I worked in management consulting (corporate and competitive strategy) and private equity, but the lessons learned in the early start-up days on teamwork, innovation, sustainability, and entrepreneurship will always be amongst the most valuable.
What brought you to Duke?
My wife and I relocated to North Carolina when we were expecting our first child. I decided to take some time off when the baby arrived, while my wife joined Duke and helped to start a group focused on global strategy and business development. Her experience working at Duke was incredibly positive, so when our son was ready to start daycare and a position in strategy and innovation opened up at the Duke Clinical Research Institute, I jumped at it.
Having an impact is very important to me. Consulting is interesting, but working at Duke gives me the opportunity to work on projects and see the impact we have on healthcare, on real people and on populations.
Have you had particularly memorable moments at Duke?
Definitely each of the two days that our children were born at Duke University Hospital. There were complications, but the clinical teams were amazing. The quality of care can only be topped by the compassion and caring that we received here. This is why we come to work at Duke – in the hope that the work that we do every day, no matter in what capacity, touches real people and real lives.
What do you do when you are not at Duke?
My anchor is my family. We enjoy our time together, whether at home, cooking a meal together, watching the latest Minions movie, or tackling a box of Legos; or during our travels around the U.S. or the world. Aedan is 7 and Sophie is not quite 5, so every day is different.
I used to bike a lot – I grew up using a bike to get everywhere. Weather permitting, this is still a popular family activity, even though Sophie is not quite out of training wheels. And I still hope to get back to flying someday, especially now that our son has also shown considerable interest in learning to be a pilot.
How do you take care of yourself and keep your sanity?
Stress happens. In a fast-paced and dynamic environment such as at Duke, it is inevitable. I believe that people are key and at Duke we are fortunate to work amongst the best. We have an incredibly high-functioning team at DIHI, one that is not only talented, but also supportive and collaborative. We have tight overlapping deadlines and we work hard, but every day we make our work fun. We truly enjoy working with each other. This is one of the most talented, committed, and passionate group of people with whom I have ever worked. We couldn’t ask for a better team.