Apps, bots & beyond: A conversation with Kaiser Permanente IT chief Diane Comer

Kaiser Permanente has long been known as one of the leading health systems for IT and digital innovation. So Diane Comer was excited to take over as the Oakland, Calif.-based provider and health plan's executive vice president and chief information and technology officer in April 2021, having been with the organization since 2007.

Becker's recently spoke to Ms. Comer about the evolution of health IT and what healthcare tech developments she's looking forward to in the future.

1. What attracted you to working in health IT?

I came to Kaiser Permanente because of the opportunity to increase my skill set and broaden my horizon, and in the process, I became committed to the organization's vision and mission.

2. How has the field changed since you started working in it?

Technology is constantly changing and today's emphasis is on enhancing the consumer experience via digital channels. Our technology capabilities are vast and wide-ranging, including cloud, apps, APIs (application programming interfaces), containers, and multiple off-the-shelf products integrated with in-house developed solutions. The menu is rich, and it's the job of the technology world to make it simple and seamless.

And — oh, by the way — all of this technology needs to be securely protected against any and all cyberattacks. It's now about balancing the technology which transforms your business objectives while protecting your environment.

3. What health IT issues are you spending most of your time on today, and what are your strategies for them?

I spend much of my time on strategic topics, including how to create an environment that enables Kaiser Permanente to meet our objectives of providing high-quality, affordable and more accessible care across the U.S. My role requires myself and other IT leaders to lead, advocate, influence and bring our expertise around technology into larger business conversations and decisions.

IT delivers the technology that enables Kaiser Permanente to transform healthcare and the consumer experience. We're the group that makes it happen.

4. What health IT innovation that you were involved with at Kaiser Permanente are you most proud of?

I'm most proud of the work my team has done to deliver innovative technology platforms at scale. Kaiser Permanente has over 52 million patient health records, making it the largest civilian electronic medical record in the world.

Our pharmacy platform provides the technical backbone for the nation's largest nonprofit, acute care pharmacy system. Our telephony platform allows us to connect with our members and manages volumes of more than 178 million calls annually. Our cloud platform enables Kaiser Permanente to deliver our digital and consumer-first vision, allowing every digital experience to be developed in a consistent manner and at a faster pace.

In 2021, Kaiser Permanente provided approximately 28.8 million scheduled phone and video visits — about 37 percent of all ambulatory care visits. My role as CITO is to define an environment that fosters creative leadership and support for incredibly large-scale and critical technology initiatives.

5. What do CIOs need to think about in a high inflationary environment?

A high inflationary environment adds pressure to the cost of our supply chain and the cost of our workforce. We are moving beyond the often and overused phrase of "doing more with less," and now focusing on changing the work to reflect what is important and what matters, and for the work that does matter, finding ways to make it easier for people to do the work through automation, standardization and more.

One example is our use of robotics process automation (RPA) technology. Via the deployment of about 1,900 bots, we have automated our testing strategy for software updates to operate at a faster pace and higher quality, attributing to a decrease in testing time from 14 weeks to now only eight weeks. A second example is in claims processing, where the deployment of bots has eliminated repetitive tasks, delivering efficiencies of more than $50 million for our organization over the last three years.

This focus on automation supports Kaiser Permanente's ongoing commitment to affordability. We strive to deliver healthcare at a price that isn't only competitive, but affordable. The average family of four pays $21,000 per year for health insurance. We don't want people to be in a situation where they are choosing between rent and healthcare. Affordability cannot be ignored; it needs to be accepted as a necessity, and we need to solve for it, especially in a high inflationary environment.

6. What would you say is coming in the future for health IT?

Being in IT for many years has shown me that change is constant. Cybersecurity is one area that is going to be a key focus in the industry for the foreseeable future. I believe that security will have a larger importance on IT and significantly change the approach to technology delivery because we will have to deliver fast, safely and securely.

Another area that will continue to be important is how we expand flexibility for our workforce. People are leaving the workforce for many reasons. The idea of employment is evolving, and we need to tap into different ways of working in order to remain competitive.

Pace of change, flexibility and the ability to learn new skills have always been requirements within the technology world. IT leaders need to embrace change and be brilliant at the basics, enabling them to have bandwidth to adapt and take advantage of the latest opportunities.

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