Visionaries: Alexandra Drane on why women rock healthcare

This installment of our Visionaries Series features Alexandra Drane, Founder, Chief Visionary Officer and Chair of the Board of Eliza Corporation, a pioneer in health engagement management via a patented speech recognition technology, rich web and multi-modal delivery platform.

In Part One of our email interview, Drane talks about women in healthcare and how to make it as a startup.

Looking at yourself and other female entrepreneurs in healthcare, and at the growing number of women entering medical school, would you say that women are increasingly having more influence in health and medicine, both in the U.S. and worldwide? What kind of changes might that bring about, both in the business of healthcare and how it is delivered?

There is nothing that makes me happier than diversity of any kind in the healthcare space – why?  Because we humans are kind of a big ole’ mess. We are complicated…and a more collaborative and inclusive perspective on who we (as in the universal ‘We’) are, and how we make choices, is far more likely to succeed when what we’re trying to inspire are healthier behaviors in a day-to-day way, because that’s hard to do.

Alexandra Drane at TEDMED 2010

Also, as it relates to gender specifically, my favorite people in the world usually have a mix of masculine and feminine traits. And in my old age, I’m coming to believe that knowing how to apply traditionally gender-ascribed skill sets dynamically, regardless of your actual gender, is where real impact lives. It’s the balance that has the most value.

The unique relationship between women and the healthcare space is not new. I just think it’s evolving. A few fun stats on this:

  • Women make 80% of the healthcare decisions in their families, and are more likely to be the caregiver when a family member falls ill.
  • Women build stronger relationships and have greater brand affinity for their health plans. Eliza measures engagement using our Eliza Engagement Index, and we find that women are 30% more engaged than men with their health plans.
  • Women are savvy online searchers. 65% of women gather health information online versus 53% of men.
  • Women share what they know. 14% of all American moms are “mommy bloggers.”

So women are engaged – and they’re more ‘experienced,’ so to speak – and in a way I think that makes them more informed and more valuable to the overall process. It’s hard to comment when you have no context. Women historically have more context about what health is, and how it lives/manifests itself, so getting them more influence over the systems being built to impact that makes sense.

Finally – and this is going to get me in trouble – I just find women more willing to point to the blue elephant in the corner. And dagnabbit, there are a lot of blue elephants in the corner in healthcare! I have come to believe that most of us working in the healthcare space have two personalities: The personality we take with us to work where we feel comfortable preaching what people should do and proclaiming edicts to that end (I do this all the time), and then the personality we take home, where we have a third glass of wine and don’t schedule our mammogram and sleep for four hours and have chocolate for breakfast while blowing off the gym for the 7th day that week (story of my life).

Sometimes what we need to remember in our wood-paneled conference rooms is that getting people to live healthy is not as easy as just telling them to do that. Most people get that they are overweight, they get that they are not taking care of themselves. That’s not the problem. The problem is getting them to start, and keep, making different choices on a day-to-day basis; choices, by the way, that are not easy for any of us to make!

I find women are faster to both remember, and bring, this perspective to the work they do, so we can spend more time developing solutions that have a chance of working. Maybe this is because they’ve been more out of control for longer? So their context is more ‘real life’? Maybe it’s because they have tried and failed in their efforts to control the behaviors of their own families, so they carry those scars and that deep rooted respect for just what a challenge this is in all they do? Or, maybe it’s just because I’m a woman, so I’m inclined to think we are superior. 🙂

You’ve been mentoring companies that back health and medical startups, such as Rock Health and Blueprint Health. What are some of the major goals of startups these days? Are there new and/or recurring themes?

Well, the primary goal of a startup is and should be the same as it’s always been – to survive! It’s bloody hard to get one of these things started, and that’s only more true in healthcare where what we’re selling is just not necessarily what folks – the actual citizens of the U.S. and our end-users, so to speak – want to buy: Less of what they love like meat, cheese, sweets, alcohol, and laziness, and more of what they don’t such as exercise, discipline in food consumption, and taking their medicine, especially for asymptomatic conditions when the medicine has nasty side effects.

And, because of that, there is a universal and never-ending component to what all of us are (and have been) trying to do to make a difference, which is to get people engaged and enable them to make healthier choices. I have been in this space for twenty years now, and what we worked on when I was getting started is the same thing we are talking about now – even after 700 million interactions – getting the right message to the right person at the right time. What’s changed? We’ve added ‘in the right channel,’ to reflect the gorgeous proliferation of technologies that allow us to connect with individuals in real time wherever they are, and increasingly to do that in a way that leverages the far greater (and slowly but surely more relevant) amount of data we have on individuals, like the way they make decisions, for example.

The buzz you’ll hear about are things like mobile, gaming, incentives, provider-centric solutions…and these things are valid components of an overall successful approach. But they do not represent the missing and holy grail that will now ‘save us.’ We, as an industry, have a very ‘run to the light’ mentality: ‘Medical home will save us!’, ‘Texting will save us!’ The reality is no one thing is going to save us. Doctors matter, yes. Mobile phones are a great new channel, yes. Playing a game is better than being lectured, yes.

But living a healthy life is an exhausting and unrelenting day-to-day challenge (opportunity?). We will find success when we finally learn to not only coordinate all these efforts, but coordinate them in a singularly focused outside-in, person-centric way, when we come to realize that there is no one-size-fits-all solution, that there is no one-hit wonder, that we are going to have to try and fail a lot to get to more examples of what works. And we can’t keep throwing out approaches because they don’t deliver the immediate success we seek. Human behavior is messy, it’s complicated, it’s unpredictable – and anyone who questions that need only look at their own health behavior. Few of us are doing all the things we should be doing to be our best selves, and this is our job!

Read Part Two of our interview with Alexandra Drane on Monday, June 11th. To watch her TEDMED 2010 talk, click here.