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Dan Dodson Takes a Minimalist Approach to Healthcare Innovation

Analysis  |  By Eric Wicklund  
   November 01, 2022

UNC Health's system director of digital health and innovation wants to take complexity out of the healthcare journey and give patients a simple path to care.

For many health systems, consumer activation is defined by the digital front door, and that doorway enables the visitor to quickly identify and find the resources that he or she needs for that healthcare journey.

At UNC Health, the focus is on one app.

"It's a continuing, evolving platform," says Dan Dodson, system director of digital health and innovation for the Chapel Hill, North Carolina-based health system. "What we need to know is how do we get it into [patients'] hands so they can begin their journey."

To borrow an analogy familiar to North Carolina Tarheel fans, many health systems see the patient's healthcare journey like a basketball play, with players passing the ball around until someone sinks the basket. But in today's patient-centric healthcare world, that patient wants to get to the basket in as few moves as possible, without the annoyances and stress of passing through so many different players and hands.

That's why health systems like UNC are pulling together all the apps they've launched over the past few years and combining them into one platform.

Dan Dodson, system director of digital health and innovation, UNC Health. Photo courtesy UNC Health.

"This is the use-case call to action that's relevant," says Dodson (who, for anyone still following the analogy, went to both Kansas and Kansas State). "You need to go to where the people are to get their attention."

While there are many different ways that a visitor accesses a health system, the majority of visitors are looking to connect with someone for a healthcare concern, and they want to know who to connect with, where, and when. With that starting point, UNC health partnered with digital health companies Gozio and WELL to create a wayfinding platform that sends text reminders about upcoming appointments and directions to that appointment.

That's just part of the journey, Dodson says. That appointment reminder includes a smartlink to the app, which the patient downloads. That app is pre-populated with patient-specific information on locations and other resources, even parking tips, and then synched with a calendar, giving the patient all that he or she needs for that appointment.

"That's how we start to make it efficient," he says. "The experience has to be seamless [for the patient], or they might find something that is easier next time."

This focus on the digital journey was, in many ways, shaped by the pandemic. COVID-19 prompted many health systems to jump onto the virtual care bandwagon with both feet, fashioning online portals and apps so that patients could access needed healthcare services from the safety of their own homes. In the process, they created multiple online platforms, adding new apps to those that had been launched over the past few years—but not all of them play well together.

"Digital platforms fail to meet consumer expectations because of what I call 'Frankenstein' apps," Gozio Health CEO and founder Joshua Titus said earlier this year when the company released a survey on patient engagement platforms. "This is when an organization launches a mashup of mobile features that are not cohesive, resulting in a disjointed experience for the consumer. This problem is exacerbated when an organization has multiple mobile offerings—one app for labor and delivery, one app for ortho, one app for EMR access, etc.—each vying for the consumer's attention, essentially moving from a Frankenstein app to a Frankenstein strategy, which is unlikely to deliver strategic value to the organization as a whole."

Gozio's survey found that many health systems are struggling to develop a cohesive strategy. Of the 82% of health systems reporting that they do have a mobile presence now, only 38% rated that presence as an 8 or higher in terms of effectiveness.

"Given that a health system's digital strategy impacts so much of the organization, it needs to be thoughtful and cohesive," Titus said in the press release announcing the survey. "This is only becoming more important as health systems seek a competitive edge in their communities."

At UNC Health, Dodson says that strategy is constantly evolving. Integrating Gozio and WELL was a challenge, he says, because each have specific services that hadn't been connected in the past. And now they're working to synch some of the back-office tasks to the platform, including the Epic EHR, and looking out towards new functions, like scheduling.

"We want this journey to be more robust, but we need to make sure we don’t create any new silos that make things more difficult," he says.

Dodson notes that journey also has to be measured. And that's not easy.

"One of the challenges of digital health is that it's hard to quantify," he says. Some functions may find their ROI in patient engagement or satisfaction surveys, while others hew towards clinical outcomes, which may take longer to measure. For wayfinding, the health system is charting no-show rates for appointments; for messaging, they're looking at timely responses, such as changed or cancelled appointments, and looking at whether clinicians are filling in those open time slots.

"This is the other side of healthcare: logistics and administration," Dodson says. "All of this ties into making the healthcare experience better."

“The experience has to be seamless [for the patient], or they might find something that is easier next time.”

Eric Wicklund is the associate content manager and senior editor for Innovation, Technology, Telehealth, Supply Chain and Pharma for HealthLeaders.


A survey conducted earlier this year by Gozio Health finds that many health systems have digital health strategies in place, but few are satisfied with the patient experience.

Healthcare organizations often have multiple apps and entry points, many of which were developed during the pandemic to boost access to virtual care, but those resources often don’t work well together.

Dan Dodson, UNC Health's director of digital health and innovation, is guiding his health system towards a digital health experience that funnels through one app, giving visitors a seamless and simple path to their healthcare journey.

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