Health innovation insider: 7 rapid-fire Qs with Providence Chief Digital Strategy and Business Development Officer Sara Vaezy

Sara Vaezy, the chief digital strategy and business development officer at Renton, Wash.-based Providence, was and continues to be a key innovation leader in the health system's collaborative and ongoing pandemic response efforts.

She has been committed to exploring the ways technology can drive better healthcare practices and has held several leadership positions within the healthcare innovation field.

In 2016, Providence welcomed her as its chief of staff and senior director of digital innovation. After becoming the health system's chief digital strategy officer in 2017, her title changed to chief digital strategy and business development officer a year later.

Ms. Vaezy leads the development of Providence's digital strategy and road map, as well as participates in technology evaluation and overseeing digital partnerships and business development. She also manages Providence Digital Innovation Group, the sustainable incubation hub that has rolled out multiple successful ventures, including Xealth, Circle and DexCare.

Below, Ms. Vaezy shares her rapid-fire thoughts on health IT innovation amid the pandemic.

Editor's note: Responses have been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Question: What COVID-19 data dashboard do you find yourself checking the most? 

Sara Vaezy: Our dashboard of chatbot sessions and messages sent, as well as number of on-demand virtual visits conducted. 

Q: If you had to choose just one, which one of your organization’s IT achievements has made you the most proud during the pandemic? 

SV: Speaking strictly from a Providence Digital Innovation Group perspective, I would say our ability to deeply integrate and collaborate — more so than ever before — with our clinical teams to launch so many essential products early in the COVID journey. 

These include our consumer awareness hub that delivers essential information to patients, our COVID-19 chatbot with Microsoft, a powerful COVID-19 home monitoring system with Twistle, a clinical research project called MyCovidDiary — a citizen scientist project to hear directly from patients around their experiences with COVID — and most recently patient engagement technology around vaccines. All of these systems continue to evolve and will be a part of our care model — even post-COVID.  

Q: In which ways do you think the pandemic has catalyzed innovation in health IT?

SV: In many ways. The pandemic exposed a huge number of patients and providers to innovative technology solutions — overcoming major adoption hurdles in months rather than years. It also increased risk tolerance within health systems and changed the regulatory landscape — potentially permanently. It opened up the degrees of freedom on new models of care — and the way we pay for that care.

It, however, has also accelerated the hard work traditionally required by disruptors like Amazon, CVS and others to get a foothold, so it raises the level of urgency for health systems to respond as well.  

Q: How do you think the pandemic has shined a greater light on predictive analytics?

SV: The clinical analytics team at Providence has found predictive analytics incredibly valuable to understand trending in disease incidence and prevalence, and mapping that to hospital capacity. I think there are a number of interesting data sources that might knit together public health, community, and ground truth data to manage not only capacity, but engagement — which would enable more thoughtful and personalized information and care — over a broach set of use cases. 

Q: How would you most like to see health IT further adapt to the pandemic?

SV: It’s less about adapting to the pandemic and more about leveraging our learnings to further the health systems mission to serve all patients in a more effective, scalable and equitable way. For instance, now that so many patients have had exposure to virtual visits, can we create new products with new payment models —like subscriptions— or even new communication or health education models, to serve patients in different, more relevant ways. The degrees of freedom are opening up and it’s incumbent upon us to seize them.

Speaking of equity, if COVID has taught us anything, it’s that our integrity and ethical commitment to our communities for years to come will be judged by how well we achieve health equity in all its forms. Digital has tremendous potential to advance health equity, but first health systems, entrepreneurs, and digital health companies have to learn how to design and build for broader groups of people or everyone suffers. Historically, many groups have often been excluded from the benefits of digital products and COVID has shown us the consequences of those actions.

Q: What's been the biggest roadblock to COVID-19 innovation? 

SV: It’s simple really — folks in healthcare are tired. We have been overwhelmed with the COVID-19 response for close to a year and it is still difficult to look beyond the crisis. It’s easy to get caught in the dangerous territory of "we'll handle it once the pandemic is over”, but that’s tricky. The crisis has opened the door for immediate innovation — to not just us, but everyone. After the pandemic the timing may be too late. It’s absolutely critical for health systems to find the energy and the resources to take advantage of the innovation opportunities that have been put in front of us.   

Q: What's the first word that comes to mind when you think about your innovation team's response to COVID-19? 

SV: Service. Through deep integration with our clinical and operational teams, we were able to serve our clinicians and patients in a way we had never been able to before. 

More articles on digital transformation: 
8 big ideas in healthcare innovation
NYU medical school launches virtual reality research project
Google dedicates $150M to COVID-19 vaccine education, opens vaccination sites at US offices

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