The key to sustainable innovation from Providence Digital Innovation Group's Sara Vaezy


Sara Vaezy, Providence Digital Innovation Group’s chief digital strategy and business development officer, oversees the sustainable incubation process that has launched three successful ventures to date: Xealth, Circle (acquired by Wildflower Health), and DexCare.

The 51-hospital, vertically integrated health system has a digital innovation group of 200 people deployed across three primary pillars: digital, marketing and Providence Ventures, the system's venture investment arm.

Three groups support the digital pillar: 1) strategy, commercialization, thought leadership; 2) product development, a team that focuses on building technology in the "white space" where solutions don't currently exist; and 3) digital experience, which focuses on ensuring patients can find the system online and creates personalized web experiences.

The biggest opportunities for digital enablement of the system often focus on four key domains: access convenience, and personalization; care simplification; mental and behavioral health; and serving underserved patients primarily Medicaid-insured patients.

"We want to be needle-moving," Ms. Vaezy said. "We are not just innovating around the margins. We can really impact the patient experience, health system economics, quality, outcomes and value, and we think these four domains present the best opportunities. Once we have defined problems in those domains, we can build a strategy around them."

After identifying a problem with a potential tech solution, the team works with market researchers, internal stakeholders, external experts, and colleagues from other health systems to learn more about the problem. Subsequently, the team conducts a rigorous build-buy analysis and considers whether vendors can solve the problem.

"We take a holistic approach to understand potential solutions and whether they have the features we care about, but also whether they support the business model, and are consistent with the technical infrastructure and architecture to support our strategy," she said. "We also consider the cost of switching from one technology to another. Our health system may already have something internally that will solve our problem, but if not, we evaluate companies to see if the solution already exists. If we find a solution, we bring it in house and validate that it works. If we can't find what we need, we consider building it ourselves."

Any time that Ms. Vaezy and her team decide to build, they build with a commercialization strategy on the back end intending to create a new company, hire a management team and raise external capital so the system can spin off the company into its own organization. Spinning off the company frees up internal resources to focus on the next white-space build opportunity.

"That process enables us to focus on the high priority problems and creates a competitive company that becomes an independent solution," said Ms. Vaezy. "Health systems aren't technology companies, so owning the technologies in the long run doesn't make sense because you always have to apply resources to keep your system competitive. This is our model for continuing to innovate while limiting constraints."

One example on the build side is the system's same day care platform, DexCare. The platform was built to allow same-day care delivery through virtual or in-person visits. Another project on the horizon focuses on patient engagement through personalization.

"We are now embarking on the journey to start building a patient engagement platform that is personalized and can drive relevant interactions, whether it be providing content for patients to read or setting up a preventive care visit," she said. "We are building that in-house now. We could partner on some aspects of it, but overall, we think there is a need that isn't being met with current products, especially in the orchestration of all services available to the patient. We want to provide the services in a way that doesn't introduce clutter and is simple for the patients to engage with."

In the future, Ms. Vaezy sees more disruption around care delivery and a more robust implementation of artificial intelligence. Over time, machines will be able to assist clinicians in differential diagnoses and provide patients with the information they need to obtain healthcare.

"A specific example that is happening now is Grace, a navigation AI bot that can answer questions with basic information such as where the closest urgent care location is and their hours," Ms. Vaezy said. "Over time, patients that feel sick but don't know their diagnoses could talk to Grace and tell her their symptoms and she could make a differential diagnosis. We don't do that today reliably at scale, so those are the areas that are super exciting because they provide leverage for health systems in the future. We have the potential to fundamentally change how we think about healthcare if we gather enough data over time and put in the appropriate clinical work to validate these technologies."

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