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ATA CEO Targets Innovation to Move Telehealth Forward

Analysis  |  By Mandy Roth  
   April 12, 2019

Veteran healthcare innovator Ann Mond Johnson brings a collaborative energy to the telehealth association, along with a desire to remove barriers to successful adoption.

This article appears in the May/June 2019 edition of HealthLeaders magazine. 

Telehealth, or virtual care, could be considered one of the most disruptive forces in healthcare today, with the potential ability to transform healthcare delivery as it transitions from hospitals and clinics into the home or wherever patients are located.

In March 2018, Ann Mond Johnson stepped into the CEO role of the telehealth association, ATA, at what she calls "an inflection point." As telehealth becomes more mainstream, she says the organization she leads, which kicks off its annual ATA19 conference on Sunday, must find new ways to remove barriers and inspire innovation.

Mond Johnson is a veteran of the early days of healthcare innovation during the late 1990s and early 2000s. "There was this whole advent of consumerism," she recalls. The idea of engaging people in their health spawned a "huge tsunami of companies, leaders, and players."

The movement was viewed as "crazy" back then, she says, and the early days were a struggle. She recalls going to healthcare innovation conferences, and "not having two nickels to rub together, so you'd have to beg someone to stay on the floor of their hotel room because you couldn't afford it." Yet Mond Johnson and others triumphed when their startups flowed into the mainstream after acquisition by market leaders. For example, Definity Health was acquired by United HealthCare Services in 2004, Lumenos was acquired by Anthem in 2005, and her own company, Subimo, was acquired by WebMD in 2006. She was hooked on the possibilities that innovation could bring. Since that time she also served as CEO of Zest Health and board chair and advisor to ConnectedHealth (now part of Connecture).

While her background in innovation is suited for an industry primed for change, other qualities rooted in her childhood influence how she operates as a leader. Mond Johnson grew up in Hyde Park, on the south side of Chicago and attended public schools.

"What was very interesting about that [environment] is there was an emphasis placed on curiosity and pursuing different ideas. The analogy of going to college would be like going to a buffet, trying different dishes and then eating what you liked the most." She followed this philosophy, majoring in French history at Carlton College in Northfield, Minnesota. "It prepared [me] for absolutely nothing from a career perspective, but it was a great way to [spend] four years and [gain a perspective about] how you're going to [approach] your life." Her curious nature enabled her to embrace healthcare innovation at a time when the status quo was to resist it.

Mond Johnson also obtained master's degrees in healthcare and business administration from the University of Minnesota, and again, another lesson implanted early in her life inspires the way she operates today. "My parents always preached that if everyone was just like you, the world would be incredibly boring. I was raised to believe in the importance and the benefits of diversity." 

She was also influenced by the women's movement in the 1960s and 1970s. It plays out today in her desire to recognize the value women bring to the workplace, and notes that the panel of speakers at the ATA19 annual conference she helped organize is "stacked with women."

"We have to do a better job as an industry, and as a society, of racial and ethnic diversity as well, I believe," she says.

Mond Johnson brings a collaborative energy to ATA leadership and her desire to embrace change is symbolized by a recent move to drop the word "telemedicine" from the organization's name. Following are highlights from a recent conversation between Mond Johnson and HealthLeaders.

"The American Telemedicine Association was started 25 years ago by clinicians, researchers, academicians, and real pioneers in the industry. If you think back on what they were doing, it was pretty astonishing."

"We convened an advisory group last year to help us recast the vision and focus of the organization. We received feedback that the phrase telemedicine is considered outdated; now you have telehealth, virtual health, and digital health. What we're talking about is really the notion of communication modalities—synchronous and asynchronous [this includes delayed communications such as texting, or store and forward functions that transmit records and images for evaluation by a specialist], as well as provider-to-provider, and provider-to-patient, or provider-to-consumer. That's the broad rubric of what we define as our domain at this point. It is different from where the organization started."

"What came out of that is a very pragmatic rebranding. Instead of being the American Telemedicine Association, we're going to be the ATA, just like Kentucky Fried Chicken became KFC."

"Now, as we move forward as an association, there is an opportunity to create a more energized business model that goes beyond membership and conferences. The goal is [to expand] the focus of the organization and the idea of convening at an organizational level rather than an individual level. We're the only ones solely focused on the dissemination of telehealth, but medical societies, specialty societies, the AMA, and other organizations—like AARP—are very committed to and interested in [telehealth] as well."

"The way you [transform an organization], No. 1, is to change the story, which is to ensure that people get care where and when they need it. When they do, they know it's safe, effective, and affordable, and clinicians can do more good for more people. For example, we did a [Capitol] Hill briefing last month. Instead of having people talking about their solutions as a delivery system, a payer, or a vendor, we focused on patients talking about their stories and providers talking about what a difference they were able to make in people's lives because they were able to use the technology. If you change the story, it makes it easier for people to collaborate and partner."

"We also have to create and focus on the market conditions that lend themselves to the adoption of telehealth. It's safe to say there's a lot of technology available, but the adoption engagement is really lacking. I continue to be surprised at how slow it goes and how long it takes for change to happen in healthcare. As it relates to telehealth, the technology is further ahead of the regulations and reimbursement. It's just stunning that there's such a lag between what is possible in telehealth and what is actually happening."

"We've certainly seen a lot of progress on reimbursement with CMS. I think with Medicare Advantage there's a potential for more, especially on regulations, but also with consumer expectations, which are different than our parents'. I think those things are really going to drive change as well."

"As it relates to telehealth, employers have been much faster adopters and much bigger drivers because they have a broader view of their employees in terms of well-being, resilience, and convenience. They value the technology from that perspective."

"Health systems that are leading the way don't think of telehealth as a sideshow. It's baked into their fiber. Kaiser is one organization [operating at the leading edge]. You can say they are advantaged because their reimbursement model is different; they're operating in a value-based environment. But there are plenty of organizations that are really doing well with telehealth that act like they're in a value-based environment even though they're in a fee-for-service environment. What I've learned is telehealth in a fee-for-service world is fine, but telehealth in a value-based environment is very powerful."

"The legacy I'd like to leave behind would be that telehealth is health. If that legacy comes to be, it begs the question, would the ATA need to exist?"

“It's just stunning that there's such a lag between what is possible in telehealth and what is actually happening.”

Mandy Roth is the innovations editor at HealthLeaders.

Photo credit: Allison Shelley, Getty Images


Curiosity and an appreciation of diversity influence Mond Johnson's leadership style.

Employers have adopted telehealth at a fast rate, taking a broad view of their employees' well-being, she says.

Health systems that excel at telehealth, the CEO says, operate as if they are in a value-based environment.

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