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Dr. Kaveh Safavi of Accenture: “

As I see it, the healthcare industry’s two biggest problems are affordability and meeting patients on their own terms. These problems can only be solved by combining technology with caregivers. COVID-19 forced the adoption of digital technology and showed us what is possible. It’s up to healthcare leaders to lock in these gains. The technology tools […]

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As I see it, the healthcare industry’s two biggest problems are affordability and meeting patients on their own terms. These problems can only be solved by combining technology with caregivers. COVID-19 forced the adoption of digital technology and showed us what is possible. It’s up to healthcare leaders to lock in these gains.

The technology tools we have previously used made healthcare safer but not more affordable. This was because the technology tools could not take over simple, non-routine tasks from humans to make the workforce more productive. However, AI (artificial intelligence) and machine learning are equipped to do just this. This brings about the promise of caregivers reaching more patients more successfully without adding additional caregivers as well as personalizing the care experience on the patient’s terms.

While the pandemic has brought about a tremendous amount of suffering for many people, it has also forced the industry to reflect and find new ways to adapt and move forward. At Accenture, we are dedicated to helping our clients (healthcare companies, payers and providers) introduce digital health services into their businesses to make care more affordable, accessible and effective at the same time.


As a part of our series about cutting edge technological breakthroughs, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kaveh Safavi, M.D., J.D., senior managing director at Accenture where he is responsible for leading, developing and driving a growth strategy that differentiates Accenture’s offerings for providers, health insurers, and public and private health systems across the globe.

A seasoned executive, Dr. Safavi brings more than three decades of leadership experience to Accenture Health. Prior to joining Accenture in 2011, Dr. Safavi led Cisco’s global healthcare practice. Before that he was chief medical officer of Thomson Reuters’ health business, vice president of medical affairs at United Healthcare, and had leadership roles at HealthSpring and Humana. Among his many accomplishments was establishing one of the Midwest’s first electronic-health-record-enabled primary care practices.

Dr. Safavi has published numerous papers and is often quoted on healthcare issues in various media publications, including The Wall Street Journal, the BBC, The New York Times, Consumer Reports, US News and World Report, Harvard Business Review and The Economist. Recently, IT Services Report named him the #1 healthcare IT executive for 2020.

Dr. Safavi earned an M.D. from Loyola University School of Medicine and a J.D. from DePaul University College of Law. He is board-certified in internal medicine and pediatrics and completed his medical residency at the University of Michigan Medical Center. He serves on the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences’ Board of Visitors–Northwestern University, is a frequent guest scholar at the Stanford University Clinical Excellence Research Center and serves on the advisory committee of the Buck Institute for Research on Aging.

Dr. Safavi is a lifelong Chicagoan.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I wanted to be a doctor from a young age. However early in my medical career when I was working as an internal medicine-pediatrics doctor at an integrated medical group, I realized that I could improve care for more patients not by working with one patient at a time in the exam room, but by approaching care processes from a broader operating perspective.

To acton this,I started attending business meetings at this medical group and sharing my thoughts on how we could make the office more patient friendly and improve access to care for a larger population. Ultimately, I was offered an additional role to improve the medical group’s patient services experience. That was where I got my first real look at how changes to business operations are made and in turn, was able to influence and create effective processes to improve access to care to a larger population.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

Some of the best professional opportunities come when you step outside of your comfort zone and try something different and difficult. While I was working at the aforementioned medical group, a colleague of mine left to join a startup organization that managed medical group practices and helped them take insurance risk. The startup was comprised of seasoned healthcare professionals, but I had no experience in the space.

My former colleague asked me if I would want to join the venture. It was very exciting, but I had few of the skills to be successful, and I let this be known. The founders reassured me that I would learn — so I took a chance of transitioning out of the exam room to a start up a business from scratch. It ended up being a critical, formative experience that started me on a path to my current role as a managing director of global Health for Accenture.

Can you tell us about the “bleeding edge” technological breakthroughs that you are working on? How do you think that will help people?

As I see it, the healthcare industry’s two biggest problems are affordability and meeting patients on their own terms. These problems can only be solved by combining technology with caregivers. COVID-19 forced the adoption of digital technology and showed us what is possible. It’s up to healthcare leaders to lock in these gains.

The technology tools we have previously used made healthcare safer but not more affordable. This was because the technology tools could not take over simple, non-routine tasks from humans to make the workforce more productive. However, AI (artificial intelligence) and machine learning are equipped to do just this. This brings about the promise of caregivers reaching more patients more successfully without adding additional caregivers as well as personalizing the care experience on the patient’s terms.

While the pandemic has brought about a tremendous amount of suffering for many people, it has also forced the industry to reflect and find new ways to adapt and move forward. At Accenture, we are dedicated to helping our clients (healthcare companies, payers and providers) introduce digital health services into their businesses to make care more affordable, accessible and effective at the same time.

How do you think this might change the world?

Healthcare costs in America are growing quickly and labor costs are the principal driver because healthcare is a labor-base economic sector. The economist William Baumol called this the “cost disease.” Wages will always grow at the rate of the economy and coupling this with scientific innovation and aging populations, means that healthcare costs naturally grow faster than the public sector’s ability to pay for care without raising taxes or cutting services. However, leveraging AI and machine learning can disrupt this cycle by scaling human labor so that affordability is finally addressed. This means the healthcare workforce can gain the same productivity benefits from information technology that other parts of our economy have realized.

Keeping “Black Mirror” in mind can you see any potential drawbacks about this technology that people should think more deeply about?

Despite the many benefits of digital health technologies and services, there is still the ability for AI and machine learning to be used for good and unfortunately, bad purposes. The right level of ethical governance must be instituted to manage this.

To successfully introduce lasting technologies, companies must practice good ethical governance with their consumers by providing them with transparency, choices, and control. Companies that take this approach will differentiate themselves and earn back consumer confidence one interaction at a time.

Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this breakthrough? Can you tell us that story?

The first half of my career was focused on influencing individual physician practice pattern variations to reduce cost and make care safer. We made care safer, but we could never outpace healthcare inflation. Then I realized that the human labor caregiver model would never slow down the healthcare cost trend unless we tried to solve a different problem –productivity.

What do you need to lead this technology to widespread adoption?

The mentality of the healthcare industry must shift from rigid process management to a test-and-learn mentality. When technologies are introduced that can learn for themselves like AI and machine learning, human coworkers will be required to continuously adapt to this technology and focus on reliability of the outcomes rather than following the process management rules.

What have you been doing to publicize this idea?

We recently published a report titled “Accenture Digital Health Technology Vision 2020,” which is based on a survey of 250 payer and provider healthcare executives. The report reveals five emerging trends that came before the COVID-19 pandemic and have since accelerated as a result: digital patient experience, AI, smart devices, robots and innovation. In the report, we also outline steps that healthcare leaders can take to ensure these trends continue to grow in the post-digital era and encourage a “forever-beta” environment for innovation to thrive.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

My father.

As a young child my father always taught me to understand why things are the way they are, and how to argue both sides of a problem. One of my first memories of this is when, as a child, my father tried to argue with me that Santa did not exist. When I finally came to accept that Santa did not exist, my father reversed his position and made me argue on the other side.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

This is still a work in progress.

When I started my career, I routinely gave out my cell phone number to seriously ill patients. My colleagues asked me why I was doing this and if I was nervous that I would receive an influx of calls. But I wanted my patients to know that they could call me if they needed to. I did not receive many calls and I realized that what my patients wanted more than anything was the comfort of knowing they could reach me quickly when they needed me.

When I moved into the health insurance industry, I was frustrated by many of the gatekeeping rules that stood between patients and the physicians they wanted to see. So, I dedicated myself to helping change state law and regulations to permit Open Access Health Maintenance Organizations where members can visit any in-network specialist for covered services without a referral and further found other ways to manage unnecessary or excessive services to keep the premiums affordable for members.

Currently at Accenture we are helping companies to use digital technologies and services built around experiences that the patients can control.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

1. Just because you’re right doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.

2. Listen for why people are telling you something.

3. A good business needs both a good strategy and execution. One alone is not good enough.

4. Pick the right people for your team and you will go further.

5. Sometimes it is better to admit your mistake, learn from it, and change course early.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would redefine the center of gravity in healthcare as a shift to a patient-controlled model. I have been motivated by what Don Berwick, the former Administrator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, asked some years ago: “Is the patient a guest in our institution? Or are we a guest in their lives?”

I think that we, as providers, are ultimately guests in patient’s lives. This means that patients should be in control of the healthcare system. Not the doctors in the offices.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Chance favors the prepared mind.” — Luis Pastor

I have not singularly created my destiny, but I can take advantage of opportunity when it comes. Success is the combination of being prepared and taking advantage of lucky breaks.

Some very well-known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say?

Bet on AI that scales human labor and makes it more productive. That is going to be the path to making healthcare more affordable and personalized.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

I’d be happy to connect with any of your readers! They’re welcome to follow me on Twitter at @drkavehsafaviand Linked Into hear more about the work we’re doing at Accenture.

Follow Kaveh Safavi at @DrKavehSafavi

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.

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