Since its inception in 2014, Providence’s Digital Innovation Group has grown to 200 engineers, data scientists, marketing professionals and other employees tasked with generating new technology tools.
The healthcare system’s internal technology incubator has also created companies such as Xealth, a digital platform that brings together services from multiple providers, and DexCare, which manages healthcare system capacity and appointments.
Sara Vaezy has helped propel the group’s growth since her arrival five years ago, holding strategic, marketing and business development roles. In March, she was tapped to lead the team as Providence’s chief digital officer, succeeding Aaron Martin, who returned to Amazon as vice president of healthcare.
Vaezy’s position also includes overseeing marketing at Providence, based in Renton, Wash., with its 52 hospitals and hundreds of clinics. Meanwhile, the venture capital arm of the organization, Providence Ventures, has moved to the finance division, although it will continue to partner with the Vaezy team.
We spoke with Vaezy about his new role and the future of technology in healthcare. The interview has been edited for clarity and conciseness.
GeekWire: Thanks for chatting, Sara. What excites you most about your new role?
Sara Vaezy: What doesn’t turn me on? We put the building blocks. We have a lot of core technology, a lot of great buy-in from the rest of our organization, our operational partners, and our clinical partners, and we have some successes that we can point to – and it all creates these great pieces to build on.
What is a recent digital project that has the potential to make a difference?
We have rebuilt a digital identity platform which has been online since September. This allows us to take authentication tokens from external parties, perform single sign-on across multiple properties, both our own and external properties. And so, it really eliminates that fragmentation of experience that is driven at least in part by fragmented identity.
How does this help the customer?
We may extract relevant signals from the medical record, combine them with relevant signals, for example from psychographic data and web data, and both our own user-generated data as well as data that we purchase from other users. others – and essentially create a whole picture of an individual and what matters to them.
Can you tell us a bit about your partnership with Microsoft?
At the enterprise level, Providence has entered into a strategic alliance with Microsoft. For example, we built the identity solution on Azure (Microsoft’s cloud) and their IAM (Identity and Access Management) solution, it was a very close partnership. They provide a great infrastructure, and we relied on the services and the middle layer that connects the electronic medical record to these things and brings out the identity.
Providence also partners with external companies to integrate their technology. Can you give an example?
A few years ago, our clinical director came to us and said, “I have this problem is that in our surgical environments, we ask our patients to outsource their own care. We give them a 50-page manual before their operation.
And so, we partnered with a company called Twistle. They were a small startup at the time and have since been acquired by another company. Basically it was [an app and web system] for “what do I know, do and expect before and after my surgery”. He reduced the number of calls our clinics received because he provided people with the content they needed. Self-service is a big part of it. You must have the information to make the right decision for yourself.
How does your marketing model work?
We grow within Providence and then, before launching, market to others. Then we hire a management team to take that company down. We become minority owners and we own shares of them, and then we have a business relationship that is separate and distinct from the equity relationship, and then we continue to influence them through our role as a large customer.
Do other healthcare organizations have a similar setup for marketing?
The other health system that routinely does this is UPMC (University of Pittsburgh Medical Center). They do this around a different set of domains and use cases. They focus a lot on data and data analysis and clinical workflow. We operate primarily in this area of consumer growth, engagement, and navigation.
How do you see your marketing model evolving?
We plan to extend this type of incubation model beyond our four walls. So right now we’re mostly building for Providence and then we put it out there, market it to a larger set. But imagine a world where we could actually build for more than one customer earlier in our process, get to a market-ready product faster, and hopefully have external funding to support it all. So it’s like the next iteration of what we’re trying to do.
How will digital innovation change day-to-day care and how do patients interact with their doctors and the medical system?
I think self-service will be much more important in the future. It’s almost embarrassing to talk about it, but the main way to make an appointment is by phone. We will perform these administrative tasks online in self-service mode. This is actually huge when it comes to the basic calculations of health care supply and demand, because the calculations do not allow our workforce to take care of the number of people who will need it. COVID has accelerated many of these trends with the resignation of people from the health sector.
And then everyone will want to try to own the patient or own the consumer of health care. And how that will turn out is still, frankly, an unknown.
What do you mean by “owning” the patient?
To be the central place where someone would go to get their health information and to perform any type of clinical care.
How do you deploy technology so that it increases the interaction with the patient instead of taking it away?
One of the most important is that automating tasks by rote. When we brought all of our customers online with us for the past two years because of COVID, it taught them how to interact with their suppliers online. So now they’re sending messages to their vendors, hundreds of messages that they can’t sift through. They even receive password reset questions. There’s a whole class of technologies that sort messages to the right person and even automate responses to some of them.
There is a whole other class of technology, where our smart assistant [in development] works, which asks “what if these messages weren’t generated in the first place?” We’ve indexed our digital properties so we know what content we have out there, and we can present it to patients in the right way. This stuff can actually bring our caregivers and patients a lot closer around what matters.
What motivates you, what gets you to work in the morning?
I have worked in healthcare or a healthcare adjacent business for my entire career. I’ve worked on the provider side for about 15 years, and before that I worked in health policy and health services research. Before that, I was a scientific researcher. The mission of health care is very important to me.
What excites me is the possibility that we really have a meaningful impact and help communities gain better access to affordable care in a pretty broken system. I don’t think we’re on a path that we, as a country and as a society, think is acceptable. In the long term, health care is very difficult and very expensive for people and I want to help change that.