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'Think Like Tech Execs': What a Former Amazon Exec Can Teach Healthcare

Analysis  |  By Philip Betbeze  
   December 14, 2017

After starting his career in healthcare "eons" ago, Aaron Martin found himself leading Amazon self-publishing and print on-demand businesses. But he felt like healthcare needed him.

Aaron Martin was a high-level executive at Amazon, who led two startups Amazon had acquired: a self-publishing and print on-demand division.

When a headhunter came calling, Martin wasn't looking to move. But as he heard about a new chief digital/innovation officer position at Providence St. Joseph Health, he was willing to listen. Since joining the health system in early 2014, his responsibilities have grown substantially.

In addition to articulating and executing digital strategy at the 53-hospital health system—which may soon merge with Ascension—Martin is also the managing general partner of Providence Ventures, Providence's $150 million venture fund that focuses on early-stage healthcare technology and medical device investments.

Martin shares his thoughts about how and why he returned to healthcare, and what he sees as Providence's chief mission: fostering a digital connection with patients.

The following transcript has been lightly edited.

HealthLeaders Media: Your career has come full circle, from healthcare to healthcare with lots in between. How did that happen?

Martin: I was in healthcare eons ago. My career started off in manufacturing, then I moved to home health healthcare management in a startup that went public back in the 90s. I went to business school [Wharton] to study healthcare and did consulting with McKinsey. Then I founded a company that developed banking and financial services software and manufacturing software.

Providence called me through a recruiter I knew and I met two leaders, including my boss, [President of Operations] Mike Butler, and they just blew my hair back. These guys think like tech execs in a healthcare perspective. They understand healthcare needs change and if they don't disrupt their own business, someone else will.

HLM: Your primary job is to foster innovation. What does that entail?

Martin: I spend a lot of time thinking about the areas where we're going to work with our business partners. We call these 'journeys,' and each of them takes 5–7 years to complete.

As one example, nonprofits are in the business of subsidizing their mission through commercial insurance, so one journey is how we grow our commercial share. Most commercial customers, who tend to be middle or upper income, are exceptionally online.

To grow commercial share, we're getting our business online so we can serve customers, but we have to earn that right. We have to be 10 times better online than offline to get people to change their behavior. That leads to what Kyruus does.

HLM: Kyruus is a company you've developed through Providence Ventures?

Martin: They're a fundamental underpinning of any attempt to get online with our customers. To put it in Amazon terms, you have to have a catalog; we needed a reliable catalog of our services.

If you talk to other health systems that have implemented Kyruus, they use it as the catalog and checkout. You have to put in basic infrastructure, a catalog, a call center, and transact online, and then you have to create engagement models.

You can't have a situation where you sign up someone for primary care, and then you don't have a convenient way of serving their smaller needs because you're basically giving that customer to other people.

HLM: What are their smaller needs?

Martin: We've built a new technology for arranging episodic, low-acuity care, called Express Care, and we've built 33 clinics—25 of which are Walgreens—with a compelling digital technology that allows you to book an appointment with one click.

That technology also allows you to do telehealth visits and summon [a clinician] to your home, and it's all integrated in my EMR.

One of the last things we've built on this commercial journey is that once you've got people online with you for primary care, you have to keep them online with you. If you don't, it costs a lot of money to acquire them.

So we've built engagement platforms to close that "circle." For instance, we can deliver personalized information to expectant mothers and allow them to engage with us all throughout their pregnancies.

Females in the household are the CMOs and control 90% of the health spend. Now we're extending that through pediatrics, and eventually we'll blow it out to the women's health platform. That way they stay in our ecosystem. Now we have them engaged.

HLM: Technological innovation takes a lot of talent. How do you compete with the Amazons of the world?

Martin: We're a big healthcare system based out of Seattle with $25 billion in revenue, 106,000 employees, and 53 hospitals.

I bring that up because we've made a big investment in digital and where we're located matters—we're in this Goldilocks zone for innovation. So it's not hard to find software engineers.

There are a lot of folks who worked at Amazon or Microsoft who are looking for something to do that has more of a social mission. That's how I came aboard. The team I brought along, that's their goal as well. We're not here because it's easy. They're a great team and they're helping scale what we're doing.

HLM: What's the idea behind Providence Ventures?

Martin: We're delivering tech into what we call the "white space."

If we don't already own a solution to a problem, we look for best-of-breed companies and that's where Providence Ventures gets involved.

Avia is a consortium of 24 health systems that helps us find best-of-breed. But we're not always making an investment in these companies. We've looked at 400 companies and made 10 investments. And if we don't already have it and we can't find it, we'll build a company.

Xealth is an example. We'll only build if we see no one else is solving a problem well. You get no extra points for originality. You get points for solving the problem.

Philip Betbeze is the senior leadership editor at HealthLeaders.

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