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Providence Approaches Healthcare Digital Innovation With Provider Expertise

Providence’s incubator model sets itself apart in the digital innovation world by leveraging the expertise of patient and provider end-user expertise.

Providence health system knows something about digital tools in the healthcare consumer world, with its latest incubated technology, Praia Health, being proof of the power of stakeholder input and design.

As a health system serving patients mostly in the Pacific Northwest, plus Alaska, New Mexico, Nevada, and Texas, the organization is well-versed in the friction points hospitals need their technology companies to solve.

And, as anyone employed or treated within the healthcare industry today knows, there are a lot of them.

“There are a lot of big challenges in healthcare right now,” Sara Vaezy, Providence’s chief strategy and digital officer, said in a recent interview. “We've got workforce crises, we've got the macroeconomic environment that is really changing. It's a really tough time, and it has been a tough time, especially over the last two years for healthcare, in particular health systems, but I'm pretty optimistic.”

Healthcare is no stranger to digital innovation, Vaezy added, but efforts have often been thrown off track because they are not directed by providers themselves, who know the industry’s exact pain points and what will and won’t work to alleviate them. There can often be some disconnect between what organizations need and the solutions that are available to them.

Providence addresses that disconnect with its Digital Innovation Group, an incubator model that focuses on digital tools designed specifically for health systems. Launched nine years ago, the Digital Innovation Group has successfully launched three tools that target issues from digital ordering and analytics to women’s health.

And most recently, it’s launched Praia Health, a healthcare digital flywheel approach to a better consumer experience, according to Vaezy.

Building Praia Health

The challenge du jour for Providence has been the friction at the center of the consumer and patient experience, and it’s what inspired Praia.

According to Vaezy, healthcare consumers face a plethora of digital solutions, ranging from online appointment scheduling systems to virtual patient intake or check-in to digital bill pay.

The digital patient experience can be loosely punctuated by the patient portal, but those can be hard to navigate, Vaezy added, and they don’t really link together the other consumer-facing technologies patients use.

At the end of the day, using any of these technologies can feel truncated for the patient user. A 2022 poll showed that online appointment scheduling falls short of user needs and actually discourages care access for 61 percent of people who found them too complicated. Another 2021 survey showed that patients would rather go to the infamous DMV than work through the bureaucratic web of patient financial responsibility.

That level of friction is a threat to medical organizations that want to maintain good relationships with healthcare consumers both to keep care gaps tight and revenue flowing.

“It's just really essential in any environment to maintain a relationship with your customer, and when there's all this fragmentation, that makes it even harder,” Vaezy explained. “And if you're adding in friction, folks drop off.”

Providence’s vision wasn’t exactly unheard-of: create a wraparound digital patient experience that keeps the patient coming back and engaging with the health system. That’s the platonic ideal in terms of consumer-facing healthcare technology, and Providence was able to use its unique perspective as a healthcare provider, not a technology company, to bring that to bear through Praia.

“We took this notion of ‘you’ve got to know your users, you’ve got to know your patients in order to be able to have a relationship with them,’” Vaezy said. “And then you have to provide a set of technology experiences that actually reduce friction, help with things like single sign-on, present the options in one place, so it's like a single access channel, and that's what Praia does.”

Praia adopts what’s called a digital flywheel approach, or a technology mechanism that provides a reason for users to keep coming back, forge a relationship, and use an entity’s services.

Vaezy likened it to the Starbucks experience. Customers can buy pre-paid gift cards to load money into their app, which the company tailors to the user. Starbucks knows its customers’ birthdays and rewards them with free drinks and other perks and customizes the experience by even knowing customers’ favorite drink orders.

“In the case of healthcare, the flywheel is knowing your health-related needs,” Vaezy explained. “It can take into account your intent, motivation, and preference. It can take into account what services your health system provides to you as well as what other services are available to you outside of those four walls so that it's contextually relevant on an ongoing basis, not just an, ‘I need to make an appointment today’ kind of a thing.”

Praia accomplishes this level of personalization through its four pieces, starting with identity and profile. This lets users utilize single sign-on like they might with a Gmail or Apple account, verify their identity, and synchronize everything to a clinical record. Users can also connect relationships they have with other healthcare brands.

That filters into the second piece, which is building the personalized experience. The tool builds a profile based on the identity information that has been entered. The experience is relevant to that unique user, not one-size-fits-all, the same way one person’s Starbucks app will look different from another’s based on how they interact with the brand.

“We're in the business of keeping people healthy, and so what keeps you healthy is different from what keeps me healthy,” Vaezy noted.

In the third piece, the technology integrates each of those different pieces of the healthcare and well-being story for the patient into one ecosystem. All of this is complemented by the fourth piece in which provider end-users can look at data and analytics to understand how patients are engaging with the tool.

Tapping Providence’s Knowledge of Industry Pain Points

In its nine years, the Providence Digital Innovation Group has rarely missed its target, Vaezy stated. Sure, it hasn’t made too many shots on goal, she acknowledged, but that’s mostly the result of a deep commitment to truly homing in on healthcare’s biggest issues.

The Digital Innovation Group can accomplish that because, at its core, it’s a Providence—in other words, a provider—entity.

“We build the technology with really deep knowledge of the pain points of our patients, our communities, as well as the system itself in terms of servicing them,” Vaezy said.

“It's really hard to understand the problem from the outside,” she added. “Health systems are extremely complex. It's hard to get in there and get the proper clinical operational feedback and insight from folks. It's really hard to get the data. Getting the data is very difficult, right? So it's just hard to know the problem from the outside.”

There’s also the matter of the legacy systems that most healthcare organizations are using. Technology companies need to navigate that extremely complex and often rigid layer of complexity. For the Providence Digital Innovation Group, that sandbox is right at their fingertips.

“Mixing that technology sandbox, the legacy technology sandbox, with current modern technologists who can solve problems is really powerful,” Vaezy pointed out. “So, we get really close to the problem. We have the clinical and operating expertise to know how to actually get stuff done. And, we have this technology sandbox.”

That is a promising approach in an industry increasingly energized around healthcare technology solutions. These tools were informed by the people who will actually use them, which Vaezy suggested makes them more powerful in rethinking workflows and patient experience.

“We're at this interesting inflection point,” she concluded. “We recognize the challenges. Folks are really leaning in to solve them in new and creative ways, which incumbent healthcare hasn't necessarily been known to do over its history.”

Correction 2023/10/20: A previous version of this article indicated users logged into Praia using their Gmail account and has been updated to clarify that Praia simply uses single sign-on a similar fashion that Gmail does.

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