Disrupting health IT: 6 questions with industry expert Helen Figge

"The word disrupter is a misnomer. It's a positive word if used correctly," says Helen Figge, PharmD, senior vice president of global strategic development for Waltham, Mass.-based LumiraDx USA.

Instead of synonymizing "disrupter" and "rabble-rouser," Ms. Figge proposes a different definition. Disrupters are those who propose a new viewpoint and rethink the process. They "give ... [their] argument and ... talk it through objectively," Ms. Figge says, adding the healthcare industry needs more people to challenge the status quo. In today's health IT world, Ms. Figge posits that it's particularly important for women to be disrupters.

Prior to joining LumiraDx USA, a healthcare solutions care management company, Ms. Figge was vice president of Global Clinical Integrations Accountable Care Solutions with Alere. She's received various awards through the years, including being named among Health Data Management's most powerful women in health IT in 2016.

Ms. Figge spoke with Becker's Hospital Review and discussed her background in healthcare, the women disrupting health IT and why healthcare's motto should be "if you have a view, let's think it through."

Editor's note: Interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Question: What prompted you to go into healthcare?

Helen Figge: My mother inspired me. She barely had a high school technical education but genuinely loved to help people. Additionally, my grandfather lived with us throughout my life, and when he became chronically ill with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and emphysema, I used to go to the local pharmacy and speak for him because English was his second language. It became evident to me healthcare really made a difference in a person's life.

Q: More specifically, why were you drawn to health IT?figgepicsmall copy

HF: I learned very quickly in healthcare that introducing the right technology in the right circumstance and at the right time really made a difference in a person's healthcare experience when delivering and receiving care.

Earlier in my career, it quickly became evident that between the nuances in healthcare and the increase in chronic disease management, streamlining and managing patients and their relevant disease data was paramount to positive patient outcomes. It's one thing to collect data, and today we can create pile upon pile of data, but it is another to have the necessary practical data to make sound clinical decisions that affect a person's life. My clinical experiences coupled with the technology introduced into health IT give me insight into both sides of the conversation.

Q: Who do you feel are the key women disrupting healthcare IT?

HF: Any woman in healthcare IT can be a disrupter. There are many out there silently executing great work that we may never know personally, yet they contribute to the betterment of the whole.

I passionately believe in gender-neutral healthcare career paths. The key to any successful career path for a man or woman is knowing and acquiring the necessary skills to execute a given role. You can never have enough practical education and experiences, regardless of your gender. I am a firm believer in finding the best person possible to learn a specific skill from and cultivating that skill along with that professional relationship. I did that, and I attribute my healthcare IT knowledge to some great CIOs and technology experts who taught me what I needed to know.

But if I had to name one woman, it would be [Epic founder and CEO] Judy Faulkner. She exemplifies what women are capable of doing when they have the practical skills, education of math and computer science, and mentors. She had people who mentored her and provided her with a network to use her skills to ultimately create a product in mass existence today. She fits my formula for women to be successful in a career path: education, mentors and work experiences, along with common sense.

You need common practical sense — not just didactic smarts — to execute projects. Women need to learn from someone who does something really well — regardless of their title — and fine-tune that skill to further their own career.

Q: What are the main challenges women in the IT world face?

HF: One of the main challenges women face is acquiring the skills that can make them invaluable and indispensable. These only come through experiences, and as more and more women understand the career pathways in healthcare IT, they will realize there is a lot of opportunity in the field.

I firmly believe the pay will follow a person's abilities to execute a position. I doubt anyone intentionally says, "This person is a woman so let's pay her less money." The money issue also plays into not having the skills needed to execute a position at times. The best way to beat this hurdle is to acquire the skills along the way and gravitate to people who can help you acquire them.

Q: How can we get women to stay in STEM fields?

HF: Women can motivate other women, but also men can too. In the past, the STEM fields were often presented in dry and mundane formats. Since they were viewed as "yawn" topics for study, STEM fields were seen as unattractive. If we get more women engaged who are representative of the impressionable ones, we can get more women excited about what the career opportunities are. We need to better understand what women want to accomplish in STEM. We need to stop pigeonholing the STEM careers and rather present them like skills, talents and educations to acquire.

Q: Why is it important for women to be involved in and be disrupting healthcare IT?

HF: There are many processes and technologies that need to be fine-tuned and optimized or even redirected and recreated. Healthcare is looking for the "nirvana." There is opportunity for all to help us get healthcare fixed once and for all. If we all continue to follow what has been laid out, chewed, digested and regurgitated back to us and not challenge the norm, then we will continue to be a society that manages chronic diseases instead of wiping them out. The saying "if you see something, say something" is our motto to identify suspicious behavior worth investigating, and our motto in healthcare should be "if you have a view, let's think it through."

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