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Most leaders who talk about a digital transformation like to highlight companies building innovation from the ground up. Tesla is a common example.

Prat Vemana, the chief digital officer (CDO) for the integrated health system and insurer Kaiser Permanente, prefers to talk about the Mercedes-Benz EQS — the all-electric sedan from a world-famous automobile brand.

“It’s about taking a traditional business model and preparing to lead in a digital world,” said Vemana, previously the chief product and experience officer at Home Depot and a keynote speaker at the upcoming VentureBeat Customer Experience Summit. “Mercedes took the best of what they had, the best of what electric vehicles offer, and went to market with the best possible experience in electric.

For Vemana, the key question for companies in the midst of digital transformation — in health care or other verticals — shouldn’t be how to build a Tesla. It should be how to build an EQS.

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Entering health care’s third wave of digital transformation

As Vemana sees it, digital transformation has happened in three waves in health care. Electronic health records (EHRs) were the first wave, while the second was the digitization of physical processes — such as writing prescriptions and sending them to the pharmacist or helping a patient who contacts the call center to schedule the right kind of appointment.

In both the first and second waves, though, there are still analog processes. Many EHRs aren’t integrated, so health systems fax records back and forth. Not all prescriptions can be processed and not all appointments can be scheduled without a phone call.

What’s more, Vemana said, the second wave of innovation is largely focused on workflow optimization within health care organizations. It helped clinical staff look up information or helped payers manage claims and detect fraud. It didn’t focus on the patient.

The third wave is a digital-first experience that also puts the patient first. “What we’re shifting is how we can take the data and intelligence and make it valuable for patients to manage their own health and wellness,” Vemana said. “We’re starting with the patient and working backward — it’s about me, my family health, and my medical conditions. That’s what we’re clearing a path for.”

Moving from data to intelligence to support patient care

Not surprisingly, data and analytics play an important role in this third wave of digital transformation.

Three data sources help to understand what’s happening to a patient and whether it’s serious, Vemana said. There’s the personal data, which comes from EHRs, insurance claims, and, increasingly, from a host of patient-generated sources. There’s the operational data, which allows clinical staff to see how others with the same medical conditions at the same facility were treated. And there’s the medical data that defines what medical conditions are and how they differ.

Having the data is one thing, but being able to use it is another. “The thing I learned from retail is that applied intelligence is the most important thing,” Vemana said. “Can you apply the intelligence for real-time decision support? That requires connections between the data and the digital properties,” which includes the EHR as well as other clinical applications.

To help clinical teams derive intelligence from data, Kaiser Permanente has created a data lake in Microsoft Azure, centered its infrastructure on data marts, and hosted its analytics tools in the cloud. The key to getting this set up in place was an emphasis on collaboration, Vemana said.

“It’s not uncommon to see health care get buried in the waterfall method and wait for approved business cases. So we started to bring physicians and technologists together to define the key results and metrics, train the teams, and align the use of data with our value-based care operational model,” Vemana said. “We came together to solve the problem. Now we can assess a patient’s condition, navigate them to the right intervention, and provide the right level of guidance.”

Driving a better experience before a visit even happens

Back in 2016, former Kaiser Permanente CEO Bernard Tyson said virtual visits accounted for 52% of all visits to the health system. At the height of COVID-19, that number spiked to 80%. Kaiser Permanente stands out among its competitors — a recent survey found that only one in four health systems have at least 25% of patients using telehealth in 2021.

Still, Vemana sees room for improvement. “We’re very successful at digitally-enabled health, and it’s truly a blessing,” he said. “But if you look at the activity, the majority of it is the post-visit experience.”

It’s important for patients to be able to access lab results, view visit notes, or conduct a follow-up without going to the office. But Vemana says he sees more value in providing guidance before the visit — like the EQS, looking at what’s already working well, and applying it in a new way.

“Today’s system is adherence and compliance. That’s transactional,” he said. “How do we move that to an experience? If I have asthma, I know I need to see a doctor every six months. But what does my environment look like? What foods should I avoid? How can I live better knowing more about my condition? That’s what we’re migrating to. When you’re much more aware of your overall health, we can turn that into a better experience.”

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