Dr. Denise Basow on the union of purpose and business in healthcare

Denise Basow, MD, will join Jefferson, La.-based Ochsner Health System as senior vice president and chief digital officer in January 2022. As CEO of clinical effectiveness for Waltham, Mass.-based Wolters Kluwer, she has led multiple lines of business, including UpToDate, a software giant she joined in 1996 when the company was still in its infancy. Dr. Basow spoke with Becker's in December about her decision to leave Wolters Kluwer and what she's most proud of. 

Note: This interview was lightly edited for length and clarity.

Question: As you reflect on the last 25 years with Wolters Kluwer, what have been some of your greatest accomplishments and challenges?

Dr. Denise Basow: So when I first joined UpToDate in 1996, it was a startup. I was employee number 10 and we delivered a product on CD-ROM, and we actually thought that was a pretty big advance since it had recently been on floppy disks. And none of us had email. So it gives you a sense of the times. As we fast forward to today, we're a global business with more than 2 million users in 180 countries and have become the predominant clinical decision support tool in the world. But I think what's most important, and what I'm most proud of, has been the impact that we've had. UpToDate is now searched 1,200 times a minute. About a third of those searches change a clinical decision somewhere in the world, and those changes lead to better health outcomes. So it's been a pretty wild ride, but definitely one that's been extremely rewarding.

From a challenge perspective, I guess the biggest challenge for me was making the transition to CEO of the business. I had no formal business training and only rudimentary knowledge of how to read a [profit and loss statement], and pretty much overnight, I went from managing an editorial team to running a business. But fortunately I had a lot of support and worked with a lot of talented and dedicated people, so we figured it out and we made it work.

Q: Why do you think now is the time to depart and move on to Ochsner?

DB: I think there are some parallels to when I started at UpToDate in some peculiar ways. So at the time that UpToDate was starting, healthcare was just entering the digital age, and we were able to utilize that change to bring evidence-based decision-making to anyone in the world who wanted it. And now I really see another inflection point in healthcare. COVID has accelerated the need to rethink how we care for patients and how we incorporate digital tools in that care, and that change is going to require innovative thinking on the part of health systems and really close partnerships between health systems and digital technologies. And that's what I'm pretty excited about moving to the health system side of things with Ochsner. I think I can bring my understanding of technology and my ability to relate to physicians to help that industry/health system partnership thrive. Equally as important, when I think back on the mission-driven business UpToDate has been for the last 25 years, I think we've demonstrated that the business and the mission of healthcare are compatible and even complementary, and to get this next phase of digital transformation right in healthcare, that compatibility will be critical. And so I'm interested in helping to make that happen. 

Q: What advice do you have for women in healthcare, specifically in health IT?

DB: My observation is that overall, women tend to lack confidence. We tend to be hard on ourselves and see our deficiencies before we feel good about our strengths. I'm not sure if that's unique to IT, but maybe it's even more prevalent in IT, where historically there have been fewer women. I spend a lot of time giving pep talks to women and I much less frequently need to do that with men. So my best advice is to just have confidence in yourself. I've talked to so many women with fantastic resumes who've been saying, 'Well, I don't think I'm ready for that next move because I'm lacking a certain skill.' And I think I'm living proof that you don't have to know everything. When you go into a new role you have to work hard, be curious, collaborative, willing to learn and just have the confidence that you can fill in the gaps. If I could impart that message to more women, I think that would be a positive thing.

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