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Russ Thomas of Availity: “Not always right”

What we’re doing is leveraging digital capabilities and data to transform these very analog processes in healthcare into something that is real time or automated and very efficient in the workflow. For example, billions and billions of dollars each year are reimbursed to physicians for services that they have rendered. Some period of time after […]

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What we’re doing is leveraging digital capabilities and data to transform these very analog processes in healthcare into something that is real time or automated and very efficient in the workflow. For example, billions and billions of dollars each year are reimbursed to physicians for services that they have rendered. Some period of time after reimbursement, the physicians reconcile their books and move on to the next month. Then a vendor shows up and says, “You know that payment we made to you or that health plan three months ago? We now have to take some of that money back.”


As part of our series about “How To Use Digital Transformation To Take Your Company To The Next Level”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Russ Thomas, the Chief Executive Officer of Availity.

Under Thomas’s leadership, Availity is leading the charge in provider engagement, empowering health care professionals to improve results by delivering healthcare business solutions to a growing network that connects physicians, hospitals, and technology partners with health plans nationwide. He serves on the Board of Directors for eHealth Initiative, Chair of the United Way Northeast Florida Annual Campaign, and is a member of the Board of Trustees for Jacksonville University. A licensed commercial pilot, Thomas was appointed to the Jacksonville Aviation Authority board of directors in 2015.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your backstory and how you got started?

Sure. After growing up in a small town in Virginia and graduating from law school at the University of Virginia, I made my way to Tampa to start my legal career. Ten years as an attorney was enough to convince me law wasn’t my true calling, so I left my practice to join a small healthcare technology company that was one of my clients. It was there that I found my passion at the intersection of healthcare and technology because I saw such tremendous opportunities to improve the healthcare system using technology. I ended up running the company, grew it, and sold it to a large international firm, then quickly realized that I’m not cut out for large organizations. That led me to Availity in 2008, where I’ve been joyfully working since to modernize healthcare through technology solutions.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or “takeaways” you learned from that?

I’ve made so many funny mistakes that it’s hard to pick the funniest. I’ve found myself on flights to the wrong city and walking into the wrong meetings! Early on in my healthcare IT career, I got caught up in the hype of counting clicks and eyeballs. At my prior company, we abandoned chunks of a highly sustainable and recurring subscription business to sell ads and give away content. My biggest takeaway from that was you always need to be “strategy forward.” If you get the strategy right, distractions and temptations are easier to avoid. It also taught me that you really have to know your audience. In our case, our “eyeballs” weren’t buyers and so the advertising model was doomed to fail.

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

That’s simple, but there are two. The first is my friend Sandra Sullivan, who was the senior vice president of student affairs at Virginia Tech when I was a student there. We got to know each other through my roles in student leadership, and she was a tremendous influence in developing my core leadership values. We remain close friends to this day. I remember one situation where the right thing to do as president of student government was clearly the unpopular thing to do with a large segment of the student body, including my own fraternity. Working through this with Sandra was a phenomenal experience, and it turned out that we did the right thing.

I’m also grateful for Julie Klapstein, who founded Availity in 2001 and brought me to the company in 2008 as her chief operating officer. Julie was a tremendous leader and remains a mentor to me today. Her tenacity and strength of character are amazing, and she models the definition of entrepreneurship.

Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

Goodfellas. Ha ha, kidding, although that is a classic film. One of my favorite movies is To Kill a Mockingbird. Gregory Peck, as small-town Alabama lawyer Atticus Finch, defending a wrongfully charged black man in a racially charged environment. My favorite uncle was a real-life Atticus Finch, practicing law in a seersucker suit and straw hat in the town square courthouse of a small Alabama town. That film resonates with me as a testament to the rule of law in America. Not always blind. Not always right. But a better system than anywhere else in the world.

Extensive research suggests that “purpose-driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision and purpose?

Availity has been purpose-driven since its inception in 2001. That purpose — eliminating waste in healthcare and creating a delightful experience for providers and consumers, leveraging our national network of health plans — is embedded in our DNA. You see it reflected across the company in everything we do. That has remained true for 20 years.

Are you working at the moment on any new, exciting projects?

We are always working on exciting projects. Currently, we are investing in the digitization of our network. Healthcare remains a fairly analog experience for consumers and providers. We are on a mission to change that by enabling a digital experience across our network of more than 2 million physicians, hospitals and healthcare workers. That is very exciting.

Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion about Digital Transformation. For the benefit of our readers, can you help explain exactly what Digital Transformation means? On a practical level what does it look like to engage in a Digital Transformation?

To me the whole notion of digital transformation is about the end-user experience. I’m less concerned with the technology that drives it than I am with the impact to our user base. With that in mind, digital transformation in healthcare is all about creating transparency and timeliness of content to enable real-time decisions. It’s delivering the right information to the right user at the right time to drive consumerism in healthcare. That takes many forms, from enabling real-time clinical information so that providers have the most current, accurate knowledge about their patients, to supporting an automated workflow for managing the business of healthcare.

Which companies can most benefit from a Digital Transformation?

Again, the way I think about it is less which companies can benefit and more how can society benefit from the digital transformation of healthcare. With that said, I believe companies like Availity, which today sits in the middle of the relationship between health plans and providers, can drive massive change and value through Digital Transformation.

We’d love to hear about your experiences helping others with Digital Transformation. How has Digital Transformation helped improve operations, processes, and customer experiences? Do you have any stories you can tell us?

This is going to start to sound like an Availity commercial, but in many ways helping others with Digital Transformation is what we do. Availity is a platform company that sits at the intersection of more than 2 million providers, 1,000 business partners, and almost every health plan in the country. Every day our job is to enable our partners and customers to transform their businesses by digitizing healthcare engagement. Case in point: Think about the last time you needed an MRI or other orthopedic test, and how long it took for the physician to get “authorized” by the health plan for the procedure. At Availity, we work with both sides of the relationship and their vendors to automate that process. In a market like Minnesota, we have fully automated the authorization process for the largest health plan in that market, reducing both the time and frustration for physicians and patients. That is Digital Transformation.

Has integrating Digital Transformation been a challenging process for some companies? What are the challenges? How do you help resolve them?

For sure. First, I think buzzwords often are the death of great ideas. “Digital Transformation” can mean many things, and I think there is risk of getting caught in the hype to the detriment of meaningful change. That said, one of the biggest challenges in healthcare is that the move to digital engagement often comes at the cost of antiquated business processes and revenue models. And change is hard, particularly if it means cannibalizing your business. That has been a challenge for many companies. And the way you solve them isn’t easy. It has to start at the top with a board and investor base that is willing to give a company bandwidth and resources to evolve. Then it requires leadership and underlying compensation structures that incentivize transformation. The bottom line is it’s going to be costly and someone has to pay for it.

Thank you. Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are five ways a company can use Digital Transformation to take it to the next level? Please share a story or an example for each.

I like to operate in threes because I think whether it’s individually or as a company, anytime you’re trying to prioritize more than three things you’re probably trying to do too much. So, I see three great opportunities for us as a company — and even other sectors of the economy — to leverage Digital Transformation to really make great strides in improving outcomes and efficiencies.

The first I’ll call user experience. And that really is leveraging digital capabilities to create a truly robust, healthy, vibrant user experience. The example that I’ll use will be the only one not related to healthcare, and that’s aviation, where I spend a fair amount of my free time. I’m a pilot and I love to fly. I’m also an avid fan of Garmin aviation products. And the reason I love Garmin aviation products is what they’ve done over the past five or ten years, which is to leverage digital capabilities to remove a lot of the complexity from the data you have to use, manage and live by as a pilot. And they’ve wrapped it around a phenomenal user experience that both simplifies the process of flying, makes flying a lot safer, and certainly makes it a lot more delightful. Instead of looking at five or six different dials or interfaces or screens, I have one very intuitive screen in front of me that I use to manage every aspect of my flight, whether it’s altitude or speed or pitch or destination or even weather.

A second area where Digital Transformation can improve outcomes and efficiencies is user engagement. One of the challenges we have in healthcare is getting people engaged in their workflows with the information they need to have a successful, efficient outcome. There’s an old expression, “Content is king.” In healthcare we’d probably say data is king. But that’s only true if you can leverage the data to deliver the right information to the right user about the right patient at the right time so they can drive a better outcome. We are very focused as a company on leveraging digital capabilities to first and foremost know our user, to know the person whose fingers are on the keyboard at a very intimate level.

A lot of people talk about engaging providers, engaging the healthcare worker. But behind every healthcare worker, behind every physician, there are armies of administrative and clinical personnel managing the day-to-day work and business of the office or the organization. That’s our target market. Those are our target users, and we are leveraging digital tools to engage those users around things that are super important to them in their daily workflow to drive a better process, to provide more efficiency in healthcare and, ultimately, to deliver a better experience for you and me as patients.

Which leads to my third example of how Digital Transformation can drive better outcomes and efficiencies. While this is very healthcare specific, the same thing already has been occurring in other sectors of the economy. And that’s how Digital Transformation can turn analog processes in healthcare into something that is real-time. Healthcare is single-handedly keeping the fax industry alive, which is so unacceptable because faxing is not a real-time experience. Faxes are a slightly better way to deliver paper between constituents and healthcare. It’s a tremendously inefficient and expensive process.

What we’re doing is leveraging digital capabilities and data to transform these very analog processes in healthcare into something that is real time or automated and very efficient in the workflow. For example, billions and billions of dollars each year are reimbursed to physicians for services that they have rendered. Some period of time after reimbursement, the physicians reconcile their books and move on to the next month. Then a vendor shows up and says, “You know that payment we made to you or that health plan three months ago? We now have to take some of that money back.”

Well, we wouldn’t accept that in any other sector of the economy. You would not accept buying something on Amazon, paying for it, receiving the item, only to find out a week later that you owe another 10 dollars or 20 dollars for the item. And yet this practice persists in healthcare. At Availity we are actively engaged in digitizing the claim and reimbursement process, so we are answering all the questions before the claim has even been submitted or while the claim is being processed. That way when the payment is made, it’s accurate, it’s timely, and it can be reconciled. And that’s what people want.

In your opinion, how can companies best instill a “culture of innovation” in order to create new competitive advantages?

Innovation, like so many things, starts at the top. At Availity, we spent the last six months of 2020 evolving our strategy to drive innovation in healthcare. That strategy had to be board-supported and now must be organizationally executed. I don’t believe in skunkworks, at least not in healthcare. In many ways we are changing tires on a moving car and that is done with transparency across the organization. At Availity we have 1,000 highly talented, creative, and passionate associates who believe in our mission of transforming the healthcare experience. Leadership simply has to open the door for innovation for our associates to run through.

Can you please give us your favorite “life lesson” quote? And can you share how that was relevant in your life?

As I previously mentioned, I was born in the South and believe there are some awesome southern quotes that teach great life lessons. But if I have to choose one quote, it would be from Winston Churchill: “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” I’m known around the organization as an unbridled optimist, always looking for the bright side in difficulties. I’ve surrounded myself with teammates who are a bit more balanced, because you need that in an organization. But I like difficult situations because more often than not there are opportunities hidden within.

How can our readers further follow your work?

That’s easy, @Availity on Twitter, @availitypulse on Instagram and search Availity on LinkedIn and Facebook.

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!

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