Q&A with Providence’s new digital chief on spinning out startups and the future of health tech – GeekWire

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Sara Vaezy, Providence Chief Digital Officer. (Providence Photo)

Since its founding in 2014, Providence’s Digital Innovation Group has grown to 200 engineers, data scientists, marketing professionals and other employees tasked with generating new tech tools.

The in-house technology incubator at the healthcare system has also spun out companies including Xealth, a digital platform that collates services from multiple vendors, and DexCare, which manages health system capacity and appointments.

Sara Vaezy has helped propel the group’s growth since joining five years ago, serving in strategic, marketing and business development roles. In March she was tapped to lead the team as Providence’s chief digital officer, taking over from Aaron Martin, who returned to Amazon as vice president of healthcare.

Vaezy’s position also includes overseeing marketing at Renton, Wash.-based Providence, with its 52 hospitals and hundreds of clinics. Meanwhile, the organization’s venture capital arm, Providence Ventures, has moved to the financial division, though it will continue to partner with Vaezy’s team.

We talked with Vaezy about her new role and the future of tech in healthcare. The interview was edited for clarity and brevity.

GeekWire: Thanks for chatting, Sara. What are you most excited with your new role?

Sara Vaezy: What am I not excited about? We’ve put in the building blocks. We’ve got a lot of foundational technology down, a lot of great buy-in from the rest of our organization, our operating partners and our clinical partners, and we have some successes that we can point to — and all this creates these nice pieces to build on.

What is a recent digital project that has the potential to make a difference?

We rebuilt a digital identity platform that’s been live since September. It allows us to take authentication tokens from external parties, do single sign-on across multiple properties, both our own as well as external properties. And so, it really eliminates that fragmentation of experience that is driven at least in part by the fragmented identity.

How does that help the customer?

We can pull out the relevant signals from the medical record, combine it with relevant signals, for instance from psychographic data and web data, and both our own user-generated data as well as data that we purchase from others — and essentially create a complete picture of an individual and what matters to them.

Providence digital innovation group’s focus areas. (Providence Image)

Can you talk a little about your partnership with Microsoft?

At the enterprise level, Providence has a strategic alliance with Microsoft. For instance, we built out the identity solution on Azure (Microsoft’s cloud), and their IAM (Identity and Access Management) solution, it was a very close partnership. They provide a lot of infrastructure, and we built on the services and the middleware layer that connects the electronic medical record to those things and brings the identity out.

Providence also partners with external companies to onboard their tech. Can you provide an example?

A few years ago, our chief clinical officer came to us and said, “I have this problem, which is that in our surgical environments we ask our patients to general contract their own care. We give them a 50-page manual before their surgery.”  

And so, we partnered with a company called Twistle. They were a small startup at the time and have since been acquired by another company. Basically, it was [an app and web system] for “what do I know, do and expect before and after my surgery.” It reduced the number of calls that our clinics were getting because it provided people with the content that they needed. Self-service, that’s a big part of it. You need to have the information to make the right decision for yourself.

How does your commercialization model work?

We develop within Providence and then prior to spin out, commercialize to others. Then we hire a management team to take that company out. We become minority owners and we hold equity in them, and then we have a commercial relationship that’s separate and distinct from the equity relationship, and then we continue to influence them through our role as a big customer.

Do other healthcare organizations have a similar setup for commercialization?

The other health system that does this systematically is UPMC (University of Pittsburgh Medical Center). They do it around a different set of domain and use cases. They’re focused a lot on data and data analytics and clinical workflow. We’re very much operating at that consumer growth, engagement, navigation kind of domain.

“Over the long run, healthcare is very difficult and very expensive for folks and I want to help change that.”

How do you see your model of commercializing evolving?

We are looking at extending this kind of incubation model beyond our own four walls. So right now, we primarily build for Providence, and then take it to market, commercialize it to a broader set. But imagine a world in which we could actually build for more than one customer earlier on in our process, get to product market fit faster, and hopefully have external financing that can support all this. So that’s like the next iteration of what we’re trying to do.

How will digital innovation change care on daily basis, and how patients interact with their physicians and the medical system?

I think self-service is going to be much more important going forward. It’s almost embarrassing to talk about, but the primary modality for booking an appointment is phone. We’re going to be conducting those administrative things online in a self-service fashion. That’s actually huge when it comes to just the basic math of the supply and demand in healthcare, because the math does not pencil out for our workforce to care for the number of people that are going to need it. COVID accelerated a lot of those trends with people resigning out of the healthcare industry.

And then, everyone’s going to want to try to own the patient or own the healthcare consumer. And how that’s going to shake out is still, frankly, an unknown.

What do you mean by “own” the patient?

Be the central place where someone would go for their health information and for conducting any sort of clinical care.

How do you deploy tech so that it increases interaction with the patient instead of pulling away from it?  

One of the big ones is that automation rote tasks. When we got all of our customers online with us over the last two years because of COVID, it taught them how to engage with their providers online. So now, they’re sending their providers messages, hundreds of messages that they can’t possibly sift through. They even get password reset questions. There’s a whole class of technology that triages messages to the right person and even automates responses to some of them.

There’s a whole other class of technology, which is where our smart assistant [in development] operates, that asks “what if those messages weren’t generated in the first place?” We have indexed our digital properties so that we know what content we have out there, and we can surface it up to patients in the right way. Those types of things can actually bring our caregivers and our patients a lot closer together around the stuff that matters.

What motivates you, what brings you to work in the morning?

I’ve been in healthcare or in a healthcare adjacent business for my entire career. I’ve been working on the provider side for about 15 years, and then before that I worked in health policy and health services research. Before that, I was a research scientist. The mission of healthcare is very important to me.

What I get excited about is the possibility of us really having a meaningful impact and helping communities get better access to affordable care in a pretty broken system. I don’t think that we’re on a path that we as a country and as a society think is okay. Over the long run, healthcare is very difficult and very expensive for folks and I want to help change that.

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