For many leaders, transitioning to a new organization — and a completely different industry — during a pandemic might not seem like a logical move. But for Tony Ambrozie, coming to healthcare was a no brainer.
“This is a place where a lot of transformation will happen, and a lot of it will be around technology, digital, and machine learning, which is what I’ve been doing,” he said during a podcast interview. And it will happen “in a relatively short period of time.”
Recently, Ambrozie spoke with healthsystemCIO about the enormous opportunity as Baptist Health South Florida’s first Chief Digital and Information Officer, and how he hopes to leverage the experience he has gained working for organizations like American Express and, most recently, Disney. He also talked about why 5-year plans are becoming a thing of the past, what he has learned from Elon Musk, and what he believes are the biggest challenges in healthcare.
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- An increasing number of health systems are recruiting digital leaders from other industries, largely because they’re looking for a “digital mindset that is intensely consumer-focused and intensely agile.”
- A key mistake organizations make with digital health adoption is spending too much time “trying to perfect things from the beginning,” which often leads to poor results.
- The three biggest factors in healthcare’s struggle with digital transformation are misaligned financial incentives, technology that is often old and inflexible, and a failure to put patients at the center of their care.
- The reason why the digital experience doesn’t seem very fluid? “Most folks are trying to mesh different systems and different products together in a way that probably we wouldn’t do elsewhere.”
- Coming into a brand new position can be intimidating, but “there’s a certain advantage of being able to shape the role and the expectations.”
Q&A with Tony Ambrozie, Part 2 [Click here for Part 1]
Gamble: I think one reason why we’re starting to see more people like you come in from other industries is that agility just hasn’t been there. Do you think that’s one of the advantages do you bring coming from outside of healthcare?
Ambrozie: Probably. There are areas where you want to try and fail and learn and try again and succeed; and there are others, like providing healthcare or flying planes, where you don’t really want to experiment as you go. But in terms of digital experience, as long as we don’t send our consumers into the wrong place and the wrong thing happens to them, you can iterate and you can do it pretty fast. I’m seeing a lot of different provider systems across the country looking for folks such as myself with backgrounds in consumer-focused industries. I believe the drive is that digital mindset that is intensely consumer-focused, intensely iterative, and intensely agile. Rather than spend a lot of time trying to perfect things from the beginning, which is not possible, let’s start sooner and see how it goes. And as long as we learn fast, learn from our mistakes, and correct them fast, we can do that.
Gamble: You mentioned that one of the keys to transitioning to a different industry is to really immerse yourself. How did you do that in the healthcare space, and what were some things that surprised you?
Ambrozie: That’s a great question. I’ve been lucky not to need medical care other than a regular checkup. But it’s obvious to everybody, including those inside the industry, that healthcare, at least in the US, is not functioning as it needs to, especially given the costs and the fact that their healthcare is a big chunk of the US economy. I don’t know if I was surprised by that, but I did get a bigger, better picture of what wasn’t working.
I’m still definitely a beginner. There a lot of other folks some on your programs that know a lot more, but from my technology and digital perspective, I think there are three different reasons why we’re seeing these challenges in healthcare, at least from a consumer perspective.
I would say number one, first and foremost, is that historically, the patient has not necessarily been the customer, but rather the product between payers and physicians and all the interactions outside clearly of the medical care. Most consumers, short of life and death situations, want to have a lot of say in our healthcare; if nothing else, than in the type of engagement experience and spaces that we have. We expect getting an appointment to a doctor to roughly feel the same way as anything else that we interact with in our lives.
The second one — and no one particular is to blame for this; it’s a combination of historical factors — is that the financial incentives are not necessarily aligned for patient well-being versus patient remediation. Providers are paid solely on the basis of treatment provided. It’s only in recent times and in recent years that this has started to change, mostly driven by the concept of value-based care provided in ways that encourage wellness. That was somewhat surprising to me.
The third thing I would say is that some of the technologies that the healthcare providers — and probably payers, although I’m not as familiar — are relatively old and inflexible. Some of the vendors in the space are dominant and monolithic, especially in the EMR space, and it’s hard to make them work in a way that enables providers to be agile.
You wouldn’t see this combination of all technologies elsewhere, unless you’re a bankrupt retail company. They’ll look back and they say, ‘It was Amazon who killed us.’ No, it was lack of investment in systems and other things. But that introduces a lot of churn in the ecosystem. You have now interesting new entrants such as Amazon, and a bunch of startups trying to provide technology, and there are ways we can deal with these things.
First and foremost we need to put consumers and patients at the center of the experience. And let me be clear; patients are absolutely at the center of the medical care experience. In the operating room, the patient is everything. Where we need to focus is on making sure that the process, from of booking an appointment all the way to insurance paying for it — that the journey outside of medical care is flawless and seamless, and that needs to happen through digital technologies.
We can and we will transform that technology, and as a result, transform the organization, the talent, the processes, and the tools. Another thing I’ve noticed is that companies and systems and providers need to be a lot more in control over their technology.
Gamble: Is that something you noticed from the outside or did it take really getting to know the industry to realize that gap exists?
Ambrozie: That’s a great point. I think the signs were there but I couldn’t figure out why. You can interact through mobile apps. But the digital experience doesn’t seem very fluid, and the reason why is that most folks are trying to mesh different systems and different products together in a way that probably we wouldn’t do elsewhere. And so that’s definitely a strategy. From a digital experience perspective, which is so important to the customer, we need to be in control as much as possible.
Gamble: So I guess the big question is, how do we move forward?
Ambrozie: Absolutely. I’m lucky because Baptist is very committed to this vision, and they’ve shown that by allocating funds and support for talent and transformation. Not everybody can do that, truth to be told, but I think we’re in a good shape, and that’s why great leadership at the top level is so incredibly important.
Gamble: In terms of your position, do you think it was an advantage being the first person at the organization to have the role of chief digital and information officer? How did you view that?
Ambrozie: There are definitely advantages. It’s probably a little bit harder when you come in and try to articulate what somebody in my role actually does. In fact, I presented to one of the board committees recently using slides to show, this what I’m supposed to do. This is why you hired me. These are the four or five major expectations. So there is an element of me learning and teaching your organization. On the other hand, there’s a certain advantage in being able to shape the role and the expectations. But all of that becomes easier when the organization is very supportive.
Gamble: I am sure that makes a big difference. And you have no regrets about coming into healthcare so far?
Ambrozie: Absolutely not. It’s been interesting. As I said, I’ve been keeping an eye on this space as the next place to be able to make a big difference relative to where you start. I’ve been watching it since long before Covid, but Covid made it even more clear to me, and probably the rest of humanity, how important healthcare is, and some of the struggles in healthcare for which providers are not at fault. I believe I can help more here than elsewhere, so there are no regrets so far.
Gamble: Great. Hopefully we can talk again down the road to see how things are going.
Ambrozie: Of course. And you’ll probably going to ask me in six months or a year, ‘do you still not regret it?’ So we will see. On the positive side, when you go into a new space, especially one with a lot of transformation, you don’t do that because you expect easy sailing. You expect challenges. And frankly, the challenges are in figuring out that yes, some systems are a little bit ahead of others in terms of how they do digital transformation, but no one really is way ahead. We’re all kind of grouped together, and then you have the likes of Apple and Google who are miles ahead of anyone in terms of digital experience. So there’s a lot of figuring out we need to do. It was definitely something that I expected, that I looked forward to, and that I was prepared for. But in any case, I’ll be happy to answer your question again in six months.