“Our world is digital and digital is increasingly integrated into our day-to-day life; however, the health care system has been slow to adapt. In a world where people expect convenient, affordable and easy access to just about everything, “Digital Health” has lagged and must catch up. There’s no denying that smarter health technology is the future, and it’s time to take consumer sentiment seriously and disrupt”
As the Chief Digital Officer of CVS Health, Firdaus Bhathena believes strongly that we are at a critical inflection point in the use of digital technologies for health care and need to use technology to raise the bar for health and well-being in a manner that is accessible to all.
Firdaus leads the creation and implementation of CVS Health and Aetna’s digital strategy, which is focused on overcoming obstacles to health care engagement through personalization, simplicity, and tech-driven partnerships. Providing people with easier access to information through digital tools — like the Aetna Health app — and simplifying the health care ecosystem leads to better health outcomes and reduced medical costs for everyone. Firdaus is committed to creating a deeply passionate, customer focused culture that emphasizes delightful user experience, continuous innovation, and calculated risk-taking.
Prior to this role, Firdaus spent twenty years in the world of venture-backed startups. He co-founded WebLine Communications after winning the MIT $50K Business Plan Competition. WebLine was acquired by Cisco Systems, and Firdaus later founded Relicore, which was acquired by Symantec. He holds several patents in software and distributed systems, and is a frequent speaker at industry events, including HIMSS and Health 2.0.
Firdaus holds BS and MS degrees in computer science and electrical engineering from MIT, where he was a Tau Beta Pi National Engineering Honor Society Graduate Fellow. He is an ardent supporter of education as a means to break the cycle of poverty and believes that diversity in the workplace makes us all better at what we do.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
My wife’s dad, a former pilot who has always kept himself very fit, had a massive heart attack shortly before I started speaking to leadership at Aetna about a potential role. He is also a diabetic, and seeing his struggle with the health care system was top of mind when Aetna asked me “how about using your skills and experience from the tech world to fix health care?” Coupled with a funding and organization structure in which we were empowered to create a relatively autonomous world-class software product organization, the opportunity was just impossible to resist. The opportunity to use technology for such an important and meaningful purpose that enables people to live happier, healthier, and more productive lives only comes along once in a lifetime.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
After 20+ years in the world of venture-backed, high-tech startups, coming to Aetna was a bit of a culture shock. When I learned that one of the most important things we can do for our members is to give them an estimate of what a procedure or service could cost, I thought to myself “How hard can that be? There must be a price list lying around somewhere that we can use.” Boy, was I wrong! After many months of working hard on a cloud-based system that uses sophisticated Machine Learning models to estimate costs I have learned never to underestimate the complexity inherent in health care. Often this complexity has little to do with technology and more to do with ingrained habits, processes, and a system that has evolved slowly over time under strict regulatory scrutiny.
What advice would you give to other health care leaders to help their team to thrive?
To solve health care challenges, we need the best and brightest tech minds, but competing with Silicon Valley isn’t easy. It’s critical for health care leaders to create a workplace environment that enables them to attract, retain and motivate the best and brightest people. Winning the war for talent comes down to three things: autonomy, mastery and purpose.
Autonomy: As leaders, we need to empower employees to architect their own experiences. For example, encourage cross functional teams to develop solutions that address required business features or host innovation and planning sprints at the end of each cycle where they compete in innovative projects or hackathons. When employees can create their own experiences, they’re more engaged in overall workplace initiatives.
Mastery: It’s critical to enable continuous learning and development during every stage of a person’s career and offer employees opportunities to continually enhance their skills. This is what we owe to our employees and what employees owe to themselves. “Mastery” is no longer a one-time thing in today’s rapidly-changing world where the skills needed today may be completely different tomorrow.
Purpose: This is the most important element. People want to make a real difference. This gives them a sense of purpose and pride when they show up to work every day.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s jump to the main focus of our interview. According to this study cited by Newsweek, the U.S. health care system is ranked as the worst among high income nations. This seems shocking. Can you share with us three to five reasons why you think the U.S. is ranked so poorly?
Health care costs continue to rise and as an industry, we must look for opportunities to tap into technology, data and innovation to address these changes.
One reason for the rise in costs can be attributed to the fact that health care has been slow to adopt when it comes to digital transformation, and this is key to improving the overall experience for people and cutting costs. Other industries caught on a long time ago, and we need to act now to catch up. For example, you used to have to go to an ATM to deposit a check. Now you can just take a photo. We need to do the same thing in health care. For instance, when your child has a fever, you have to take their temperature and then take them to a doctor. But what if your thermometer could help you determine whether it’s the flu or just a common cold before you ever leave your home?
Second, people want and deserve to know what their care is going to cost them. As a health care system, we need to increase transparency by providing people with tools that help them estimate medical costs and choose doctors based on quality and price.
Third, the system is narrowly focused. People want someone to focus on their total health, which is not one-size fits all. To move the needle, providers need to leverage technology to deliver personalized, contextualized recommendations that help people reach their overall health ambitions.
And fourth, the system has failed to meet people on their own terms. People want to choose how they engage with the health care system. We need to meet them where they are, through the channels they prefer, and at the time that’s best for them.
You are a “health care insider.” If you had the power to make a change, can you share five changes that need to be made to improve the overall U.S. health care system? Please share a story or example for each.
Our world is digital and digital is increasingly integrated into our day-to-day life; however, the health care system has been slow to adapt. In a world where people expect convenient, affordable and easy access to just about everything, “Digital Health” has lagged and must catch up. There’s no denying that smarter health technology is the future, and it’s time to take consumer sentiment seriously and disrupt. Five things that health care organizations need to do now to move the industry forward include:
- Think, act and execute like a world class software product organization: This requires a change in mindset, from treating technology as an add-on or “nice to have” to making it part of the DNA of the company.
- Make simplicity top priority: You shouldn’t need a PhD to understand how to access, engage with and derive value from your health care system. We need to take advantage of the technologies at our fingertips today to deliver simple, intuitive experiences for members.
- Focus on holistic health. Consumers want someone to focus on their total health, which is not one-size fits all. To move the needle, providers need to leverage technology to deliver personalized, contextualized recommendations that help people reach their overall health ambitions.
- Meet consumers on their terms: People want to choose how they engage with the health care system. We need to meet them where they are, through the channels they prefer, and at the time that’s best for them.
- Give something in return: We ask consumers to do a lot of work when it comes to health care. We need to provide value to them for their effort. It could be rewards, it could be saving money. But we need to do something.
Ok, it’s very nice to suggest changes, but what concrete steps would have to be done to actually manifest these changes? What can a) individuals, b) corporations, c) communities and d) leaders do to help?
Individuals can drive change by demanding better. Demanding more simple and enjoyable experiences and demanding products that actually make health care easy to understand and navigate.
Corporations can invest in digital technologies, fueled by analytics, to deliver better, more personalized experiences that hone in on preventative care and reduce the barriers people face to accessing the care they need. And I believe that data, information and technology, when used in the right ways, can help us solve this problem.
Communities can empower citizens to look for opportunities to maximize their health holistically. Encourage people to get outside by organizing local events focused on health and connectedness. Host information sessions that provide community members with key information related to local care access. And look for opportunities to leverage technology to bring these initiatives to life.
Leaders must encourage change from the top down and listen to not only employees, but also customers or members. Consumer-first digital innovation will change health care as we know it and leaders must stay focused on making health care simple to navigate and understand.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I spent the first 20+ years of my professional life following Albert Einstein’s dictum: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” In the world of high-tech startups, thinking differently was par for the course for me. Sometimes it worked out, and sometimes it did not. At a very large company like CVS Health, I’ve had to add another quote to live by: “Innovation is saying NO to a thousand things.” by Steve Jobs. There are so many things happening simultaneously in a company this big that we have to consciously focus ourselves on the few things that matter the most in order to do them well. Otherwise we run the risk of spreading ourselves so thinly that we cannot be really great at anything.
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About the Author:
Originally from Israel, Limor Weinstein has been anorexic and bulimic, a “nanny spy” to the rich and famous, and a Commander in the Israeli Army. Her personal recovery from an eating disorder led her to commit herself to a life of helping others, and along the way she picked up two Master’s Degrees in Psychology from Columbia University and City College as well as a Post-Graduate Certificate in Eating Disorder Treatment from the Institute for Contemporary Psychotherapy.
Upon settling in New York, Limor quickly became known as the “go to” person for families struggling with mental health issues, in part because her openness about her own mental health challenges paved the way for open exchanges. She understood the difficulties many have in finding the right treatment, as well as the stigma that remains so prevalent towards those who are struggling with mental health issues. She realized that most families are quietly struggling with a problem they’re not comfortable talking about, and that discomfort makes it much less likely that they will get the help they need for their loved ones. She discovered that being open and honest about her own mental health challenges took the fear out of the conversations. Her mission became to research and guide those families to the highest-quality treatment available. Helping others became part of her DNA, as has a commitment to supporting and assisting organizations that perform research and treatment in the mental health arena.
After years of helping families by helping connect them to the right treatment and wellness services, Limor realized that the only way to ensure that they are receiving appropriate, coordinated and evidence-based care would be to stay in control of the entire treatment process. That realization led her to create Bespoke Wellness Partners, which employs over 100 of the best clinicians and wellness providers in New York and provides confidential treatment and wellness services throughout the city. Bespoke has built its reputation on strong relationships, personalized, confidential service and a commitment to ensuring that all clients find the right treatment for their particular issues.
In addition to her role at Bespoke Wellness Partners, Limor is the Co-Chair of the Academy of Eating Disorders. She lives with her husband, three daughters and their dog Rex in Manhattan.
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