Becker’s Q&A with Novant Health Executive Vice President, Chief Transformation and Digital Officer Angela Yochem

During a recent interview, Angela Yochem, Executive Vice President and Chief Transformation and Digital Officer at Novant Health, discussed the essential role of innovation and technology in addressing critical scarcity issues, such as staffing shortages, to achieve higher ROI at her health system.

With 40,000 team members serving patients across 800 locations in thirteen states, the North Carolina-based Novant Health is a significant provider in the southeastern US.

Question: How do you define your role as “Chief Transformation and Digital Officer”? What does that mean for a large-scale system like Novant Health in particular?

Angela Yochem: As Chief Digital Officer at Novant Health, I’m responsible for all things related to technology. That includes the traditional IT line of the business, including digital health services, a data team, and cognitive computing organization.

In my Chief Transformation Officer role, I lead business transformation. This includes growth of our core businesses, adjacent revenue streams, or potential offerings for our customers – our patients – that aren’t entirely adjacent. The work of AI and machine learning, and the seed activity that underlies it, also falls under the transformation part of my job. Also related, my teams are responsible for our innovation labs. We’re always looking at new ways to grow and expand and serve our patients, in line with the future of healthcare, and not necessarily the past.

I also run operations for Novant Health Enterprises, a division of Novant Health dedicated to unconventional growth and partnerships. I act as the COO and GM of that division.

Q: Why is it important to innovate in healthcare today, and how has Novant Health innovated to address some of the critical challenges in the industry?

AY: Something causing a tremendous amount of concern in our industry is the staffing shortage issue, often limiting the number of procedures that can be performed and therefore impacting systems’ revenue. Members of the broader clinical community have experienced such burnout and pressure the past few years, it’s a difficult time for them to give as much as the industry has historically asked of them. Across the industry, resignations continue, and with limited supply and skyrocketing demand, especially with continued ‘tripledemic’ surges, labor prices are at an all-time high.

How do we continue to thrive in the face of this sort of headwind, understanding that staffing shortages are likely to continue for a while?

That's when we look toward automation and virtualization. The more of our teams’ day-to-day tasks, such as patient scheduling, we can automate now. Automation of tasks such as scheduling allows our team members to focus on other priorities, leading to less burnout from overwork. In the past, the cost of change associated with automation may have outweighed the value add, but now with significant increased labor costs, the cost of the automation in comparison is a no-brainer.

As we saw in recent years, virtualizing any kind of work also addresses scarcity problems. During COVID many of us were concerned about ICU capacity. At Novant Health we created a virtual ICU, so that remote intensivists could look after patients in rooms attended by hospitalists. Intensivists could oversee many more patients this way than they would be able to in-person. We saw what virtualization can do at scale for patients, which was life-saving.

To address the nurse shortage today, we’re looking at virtual nursing, specifically around checking people in and out. Many other nursing tasks can also be done remotely, while other nurses are on the floor doing the work that absolutely must be done at the bedside. That's how we want to keep our focus, and we can provide more flexible opportunities for nurses that way as well.

Q: To achieve this automation and virtualization, you optimize technology in-house, but you work with third-party partners as well. Why did you decide to take this approach?

AY: In my experience in other industries, like pharma, logistics, and big tech, I’ve found it’s simply no longer reasonable for every great idea and discovery to come out of an organization’s four walls. Pharma companies, for instance, are now set up to source discoveries from labs, researchers, or other third parties, then apply their heft and scale to help with the medicine’s development, trials, commercialization, and so on.

My experience has also shown that the way to truly differentiate a solution for the organization is to create at least parts of it internally, and that there are irreplaceable benefits to co-creating with an aligned expert partner. So, at Novant Health we prioritize partnerships as well as in-house innovation, to be proactive and better serve patients.

We don’t approach providing access to care or increasing quality of care from a position of fear. We take very seriously that our chief responsibility is to the patients in our region. If we waited for solutions to arrive instead of leading innovation ourselves, we would be forcing our patients to wait as well. Then people will not get care when they need it, and our region as a whole will be less healthy.

It is extremely important we take responsibility to continue to push the boundaries. We constantly seek to learn. We're constantly paying attention not only to what's already commercially available, but what’s possible. We constantly test and engage with our internal and external ecosystem – our in-house team, as well as third-party inventors – to determine what may be coming in the future and how they might co-create with us. That constant activity and hunger for improvement will allow patients in our region to be the healthiest in the country, because we have very carefully and intentionally gone after those differentiating capabilities that make a difference to them.

Q: Can you tell us about a co-creative partnership that’s made a particularly noticeable difference for your patients and Novant Health?

AY: A co-creative partnership that’s made a significant difference in our patients’ journey and access to care is our work with LeanTaaS, whose AI and machine learning tools analyze and proactively optimize our capacity-critical service lines like operating rooms and infusion centers. We’ve seen clear ROI from this partnership. For example, in our infusion centers, we’ve used LeanTaaS’ iQueue solution in our workflows to decrease wait times for patients by 40-50%. We built an entire infusion center in our new cancer building that has no waiting room, because our nurses can use iQueue to get our patients to exactly the chair they need, immediately.

This achievement is foundational to what Novant Health strives to do for our communities, and the collaboration of a technology partner like LeanTaaS who understands our goals and abilities has been essential.

Q: What are some key learnings from Novant Health’s success in digitization for better operations and ROI? How did you set your health system up for success, and how do you plan to continue supporting success in the future?

AY: From a process standpoint, we started by recognizing that we needed a solid foundation to be able to shape innovative solutions for ourselves. Particularly for AI and machine learning projects, only quality, reliable data will produce quality, reliable results. At Novant Health, we’ve ensured we have a large, consistent pool of clinical data hosted on an Azure-based cloud, with a robust API layer through which we could access the data at will. Building on that, we created an Institute of Innovation and Artificial Intelligence, which I chair, separate from our traditional IT space. This structure lets us govern both our new and existing technology solutions with due attention to each and gives clinicians a voice in implementing solutions that impact their work.

That foundational work has been key for us to be able to successfully deploy solutions from partners like LeanTaaS, or to create or co-create solutions that have an AI-based component that requires pristine data. This has been critical in our digitization efforts.

To continue supporting our people in developing solutions that best serve our patients, we also maintain a culture of agility and learning. We can flex budgets to new projects if our priorities change after past plans were put in place, and we encourage leaders and staff throughout the organization to offer perspectives and ideas. By promoting this culture, we ensure all solutions, those we produce ourselves and those we shape with our partners, are useful, effective, and built on Novant Health’s unique needs and expertise.

For an extended conversation with Angela Yochem on Novant Health’s transformation journey, view her recent interview at the Transform Virtual Hospital Operations Summit on demand.

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