Creating a Digital Ecosystem for the Consumer Healthcare Experience

SumbulDesaiAs the Associate Chief Medical Officer for Strategy and Innovation at Stanford Hospital and Clinics, Sumbul Desai is responsible for the product strategy, design, and deployment of Stanford’s virtual care and digital offerings. With a focus on how integrating technology into healthcare will impact our lives, Dr. Desai is developing a research program that will leverage technology to improve patient experience as well as the coordination of care. She also leads the hospital’s strategy and innovation group, and is a Clinical Assistant Professor at Stanford University’s School of Medicine.

TEDMED: What’s the most remarkable innovation you are seeing in health tech or medicine, and what is driving it?

Desai: What I find remarkable is the way the focus on the patient as the consumer is driving a lot of change in healthcare. Patients are now expecting that their experience with their healthcare systems should be closer to what their consumer experiences are, especially digitally.

It used to be almost unheard of to do user experience and consumer research in healthcare. But we’re starting to do it and I’m a big believer in driving that in our organization. I’m seeing UX folks who are very interested in healthcare and how to improve the patient experience. Digital is a way to do that and it’s moving the needle.

Mobile and digital technologies are driving that, but also patients are, which is awesome. Patients are demanding it. Patients ask, “If I can buy a cup of coffee super easily, why can’t I deal with my physician easily?” Even the airline experience has changed so much; you can check in at a kiosk or on your phone. Changes in other industries are trickling into healthcare.

As physicians we’ve always been taught that the patient is at the core. But now the market is forcing us all to think that way. Even outside the digital world, in the personal experience, there’s a lot more emphasis on interactions with patients and putting them first.

TEDMED: What’s the most important factor for entrepreneurial success in health tech—and is that different from your own key to success?

Desai: The most important factor for entrepreneurial success in health tech is to understand the business you’re working with. Healthcare is really nuanced. A lot of times when we meet with startups they have phenomenal ideas, but they’re looking at their one idea and not necessarily looking at how complex healthcare is on a global and macro level. They’re very passionate about their solutions, but only about one sliver or piece of our overall workstream problem. Coming up with meaningful solutions and being a successful healthcare business requires spending the time to really understand how healthcare works, understanding the business you’re trying to get into, understanding your users who are physicians and nurses, and understanding that there are tons of regulatory issues that need to be understood.

In my own career, I’ve always wondered, could I go work for a startup? But being on the other side in the hospital system, you really have to understand your business and where you can fit in innovations that actually improve. I’m getting at the same thing: understanding how we change things from inside is really important.

TEDMED: For entrepreneurs with needle-moving ideas in global health, what are the keys to finding collaborators and supporters across specialties, industries, and geographies?  

Desai: The keys are remembering your use case, staying true to the problem you’re trying to solve, and building upon it by partnering and collaborating with other providers. It’s important to think about how you leverage innovations in other industries to help solve those global problems.

It’s important to be creative about leveraging private company money along with public partnerships to move the needle. If you want to solve global problems you need to be global about your approach, you have to be open to collaboration. Rather than thinking you’re going to compete with someone who’s trying to solve the same large problem, it’s often helpful to put your heads together to attack some portion of the problem to get to a larger result.

TEDMED: In 2020, you’re asked to give a TEDMED talk about the biggest transformation you helped bring about in your field. What is it?

Desai: I want to be able to create a healthcare system that can truly partner with patients before they ever need healthcare. For example, when you’re well you want to be part of our healthcare system as you progress through life so that we can be a partner in your health rather than just treating you when you’re sick.

To get to that, I am focused on creating a patient experience that has digital intertwined with the physical experience to provide what feels like one overall unified patient experience. That means asking, “How do I give you care at home when it’s appropriate? How do I give you care at your office when it’s appropriate? How do I have you come in when you really need to? And how do I leverage digital to give you care as much as I can in the middle of those opportunities in the comfort of your own life so you’re not having to drag yourself into healthcare system?”

My hope is that if we make access to care easier and more convenient and more enjoyable, then you’re more likely to engage in good preventative behavior and stay healthier longer.

And then when you are going through a challenging healthcare experience, like everyone does at some point in life, your experience is amazing because you already know what to expect before you get to the hospital, when you’re there you know exactly what’s happening, and when you leave you have complete continuity of care transitioning you back to normal life.

How do we innovate and leverage digital and all the strengths we have in mobile and wearables and put it all together to solve not just one issue but to provide one amazing experience—a complete ecosystem of healthcare that ties into your life.